In the early '80s, Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson got wind of the Afghani guerilla rebellion resisting Soviet invasion and decided that not enough American dollars were being spent to aid the rebels. After doubling the CIA investment, Wilson later found himself approached by politically "inside" socialite Joanne Herring and hot-tempered CIA officer Gust Avrakotos, both of whom saw the appeal of running guns into Afghanistan to tip the advantage to the rebels. As a celebratory banner would later trumpet, "CHARLIE DID IT," changing Cold War history but also enabling a power vacuum swiftly occupied by the Taliban.
In taking up the story via George Crile's non-fiction book of the same name, the movie Charlie Wilson's War plays a bit like a Bizarro-world Frank Capra picture. With big stars in the leads and top character actors on hand, the picture spews funny character beats, sharp dialogue, and satirical situations just like Capra at his best. But where a Capra picture would go for the gut in portraying his hero's dark night of the soul, then turn around and redeem him to set an example, the fact-based Charlie Wilson's War puts its hands in its pockets and sheepishly kicks the dirt at picture's end in a show of post-modern ambiguity.
The complication derives from an ambivalence—shared by America—about the film's central figure. With the screenplay's harsher beats reportedly softened to appease the real-life Wilson and a suspicious 97-minute running time suggesting much of the picture is on a cutting-room floor somewhere in Burbank, there's a smell of compromise around the picture's edges. As expertly played by Tom Hanks, Wilson is mocked in a light and friendly way for his never-concealed womanizing and partying. When Tip O'Neill floats him for the Ethics Subcommittee, Wilson says, "Everybody in town knows I'm on the other side of that issue," a comment that should cut deeper than it does. Nevertheless, Wilson comes off as the embodiment of American can-do spirit in action.
The Oscar-pedigree talent behind the picture—director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Closer) and writer Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing)—winkingly tell the story in a broad comic style that stops just short of a political cartoon. Despite selective omissions, the satire is accurate in its particulars, from Wilson's office staff of buxom "Charlie's Angels" (explained by the actual Wilson line "You can teach them how to type, but you can't teach them to grow tits") to the caliber of weaponry needed to take down a Soviet helicopter.
In scenes depicting Wilson brokering an unheard-of arrangement between Israel, Pakistan, and Egypt, Sorkin and Nichols capture the headiness and humor (of the absurd variety) inherent in the story, but the political nuts and bolts on the domestic side remain remote and the unfolding of the war itself remoter. There's something distasteful in Nichols' clumsy attempts to portray the violence: an opening gag depicting a prayer to Allah before picking up a rocket launcher, two Soviet helicopter pilots blithely chatting about relationship woes before being mortally surprised by enemy resistence, and a hasty, third-act montage that depicts the worm turning in the rebels' favor.
The filmmakers fare better in roasting their characters for their foibles. Looking like a middle-aged Wilford Brimley, Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a shrewdly satisfying performance as Avrakotos. Burned by his masters, the archetypal lone wolf figures correctly that he can educate and motivate Wilson. In the film's most overt bit of farce, Avrakotos tries to sell Wilson but repeatedly finds himself ejected from Wilson's office as his staff bursts in to troubleshoot a cocaine scandal. It all ends with a signature Sorkin punchline revealing Avrakotos won't be eaten for lunch like Wilson's usual hand-out visitors.
It's probably a mistake to make the compromised Avrakotos Wilson's conscience toward picture's end. When told by Wilson, "You ain't James Bond," Avrakotos replies, "You ain't Thomas Jefferson" before warning of the consequences to Afghanistan should America not commit to ongoing reconstructive aid. Cut to Wilson in a suddenly underpopulated committee meeting, arguing unsuccessfully for just such aid.
With his questionable accomplishment, Wilson probably shouldn't be positioned as the film's hero, but rather, as in Nichols' Primary Colors, a more obviously compromised "Clinton" played against a more accessible audience surrogate. As Wilson's aide, Amy Adams might have filled that role were her character not crammed into the margins (speaking of underused actresses, Emily Blunt is wasted in a two-scene cameo as one of Wilson's sexual conquests).
Julia Roberts gives self-made politico Herring a credible combination of self-assurance and persistence bolstered by sex appeal, but the film's least convincing plot thread is its attempt to make her sexual relationship with Wilson somehow poignant. One minute, Wilson is gleeful to see her "nekkid," the next the otherwise implacable Wilson is shedding a tear over his late-picture failure to make game-winning conversions with Herring and the future of Afghanistan.
Though the story deserves more weight, Charlie Wilson's War is still a pleasing, unusually smart, consistently witty mass entertainment that disseminates a bit of modern history resonant with America's current international meddling.