After the litany of awkward antiwar polemics foisted on filmgoers in the fall (In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, Redacted), it seemed fair to ask what it would take for Hollywood to make a good movie about war and politics. The answer provided by writer Aaron Sorkin and director Mike Nichols is simplicity itself: Leave out most of the war and all the politics.
Charlie Wilson's War won't have any effect on the course of world affairs--and it's sensible enough to recognize this. The backdrop of the movie may be the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of fanatical Islam, but the foreground is filled with attractive stars trading sharp, Sorkinized dialogue. "Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?" a character asks Texas Representative Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) in the early going. "Well," he begins, before pausing thoughtfully, "tradition, mostly."
Based on George Crile's stranger-than-fiction account of the CIA's largest-ever covert operation, the film follows the 1980s evolution of Wilson from amiable, boozy philanderer to amiable, boozy philanderer with a purpose--specifically, providing support to the Afghan mujahideen trying to expel the Soviet invasion. He was inspired in this cause in part by Houston socialite-cum-freedom-fighter Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and aided by CIA case officer Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Pre-Wilson, the annual covert ops budget for Afghanistan was $5 million; by the time he was done, it was $1 billion.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Soviet Union was expelled and suffered a blow from which it never really recovered. But, when America went back to ignoring Afghanistan, our erstwhile rebel allies underwent the small but crucial etymological shift from mujahideen to jihadi. As the (real) Wilson summarizes in an onscreen quote at the conclusion of the film: "Those things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And then we fucked up the endgame."
It's a moral that cuts neatly across partisan lines--half-hawkish, half-dovish, and uncontroversial enough that Nichols and Sorkin don't have to waste time scoring political points. The script is sprinkled with enough contemporaneous references (to Tip O'Neill, Boris Spassky, Rudy Giuliani, etc.) to feel smart, but never so many that it looks like it's trying to be Serious. And it crams quite a bit into its slim, 97-minute running time, chronicling not merely Wilson's geopolitical crusade, but also his personal mission to dally with a Clintonesque tally of young beauties. (The film rather overdoes it on this score.)
Hanks is an odd choice to play "Good Time Charlie," the bluff, womanizing Texan (someone like Thomas Hayden Church seems a closer fit), but he gives the role a likable spin nonetheless, conjuring a congressman a bit more languid and ironic than one imagines the original to have been. Julia Roberts is a considerably greater stretch as the fiftysomething man-eater Herring, her platinum helmet of hair appearing borrowed from someone else or perhaps even spliced in from another movie. It's also interesting to note that even as Roberts is clearly (and shrewdly) starting to look for ways to transition into older roles, she's not yet ready to put all her eggs in that basket: One scene in the movie has her answering the telephone while stepping, bikini-clad, from the pool, revealing a bod that is fifty going on twenty-two. But despite the dissonance, Roberts turns in an adequate performance, rescuing an act of miscasting that could easily have proven disastrous.