How often do you see a movie that is pure pleasure from beginning to end? Try “Charlie Wilson’s War.” In the hands of director Mike Nichols it flies by at the speed of light. The script is Aaron Sorkin at his absolute best - serious and funny, idealistic and cynical –sharp and irreverent. That’s the charm of the film: it is a nest of contradictions that are both unlikely and comic, and yet the story is true.
Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is presented to us in the first scene as an unrepentant rogue Congressman. He’s lolling in a Las Vegas hot tub with two dumb blondes, scotch in hand, with one eye on Dan Rather broadcasting the news of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on TV. Though Afghanistan will win out over Charlie’s self-indulgence every time, this is a man who sees life as a game to be played with consummate skills in cajoling and trading.
Charlie is summoned back to Texas by his sometimes lover, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a rich Houston socialite. Joanne has found both God and Afghanistan, and with the help of one, she will save the other. She has devised a plan for Afghanistan, assigning Charlie the role of securing massive aid through his Appropriations Committee for the largest covert CIA operation ever run – one of the few that succeeds. (The aid he secured increased from five million to one billion dollars.)
Their goal: to get powerful weapons into the hands of the Afghan Mujahideen without leaving American fingerprints. After visiting the Afghan refugee camps, nothing will stop him. As a master manipulator, he enlists the help of several countries in a series of wildly comic exchanges where Charlie gets what Charlie wants.
As counterpoint to Charlie’s irreverence, we are given Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a CIA specialist, an up from the street loner with a cyclonic temper and a determination to free Afghanistan from Soviet brutality. Inside the ivy covered halls of CIA, Gust is a misfit. Outside, he is the perfect partner for Charlie. The interplay between Hanks and Hoffman is a masterpiece of timing and emotion. Comedy simply doesn’t get better than their duet. Julia Roberts wonderfully invests Joanne with all the sly trickery a socialite with a cause must have. Considering she is taking on the Soviet Union, she needs every bit of the panache and gall Roberts gives her.
Mike Nichols blends the excellent cast into a perfect whole. What lifts the film beyond good is the inspired combination of Nichols and Aaron Sorkin. An artist at puncturing pretension, Sorkin stands alone in writing serious/funny. Few actors can interpret this kind of thing better than Tom Hanks who transcends type here and charms both Charlie Wilson’s targets and the audience.
The biggest rogue operation in history was run by a bigger than life rogue who saunters, loves America, loves fun, and hates cruelty. Great job, Tom Hanks.
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