As a piece of political satire, “Charlie Wilson’s War” may not have the sharpness and pinpoint accuracy of Mike Nichols’ previous essay in the genre, his adaptation of Joe Klein’s Clintonian roman de clef “Primary Colors” (1998); indeed, it holds back when it should go for the jugular in terms of current events, and its triumphal attitude toward its main protagonists is reverential when it should probably be quizzically ironic. But purely as popular entertainment, the picture snaps and crackles with colorful characters and droll dialogue, and on that level alone it’s enormous fun.
Part of the success of the picture comes from the fact that it tells its story at whiplash speed, coming in at only a bit over ninety minutes at a time when many releases are of epic length. (Perhaps Nichols thought it was necessary to make amends for “Colors,” which itself was nearly an hour longer.) In any event, the result is that although it slows down for some quieter episodes, the best parts of the picture have the sort of non-stop comic energy that marked pictures like “His Girl Friday” and Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three.” (And it’s here that Aaron Sorkin’s writing shines most brightly.)
And those are basically the sequences in which Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman share the screen and trade barbs with one another—with the fizz largely coming from the latter. That doesn’t mean that Hanks isn’t good as Wilson, the high-living, good-time-loving Texas congressman who’s prodded by his sometime mistress, Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), to use his influence on military appropriations committees to increase the level of secret funding to Afghan fighters resisting the 1979 Soviet invasion. He is (and so, in fact, is Roberts, as the determined, manipulative Herring.) But it’s Hoffman who’s the real sparkplug as Gust Avrakotos, the rumpled, rough CIA operative who becomes Charlie’s partner in transforming the Afghan war into a major effort to defeat the Russians by proxy while maintaining plausible deniability. Outfitted perfectly by costumer Albert Wolsky, Hoffman—with his bushy hairdo, ragged moustache and beer-belly physique—takes charge whenever he’s onscreen and gives each of his scenes an impish vitality that’s irresistible. His extended first meeting with Hanks in Wilson’s Capitol Hill office is a combination of staging, pacing, editing and comic acting so masterful that you almost want to stop the movie with an ovation before letting it proceed.
Where the picture stumbles is in its seeming reluctance to emphasize that for all its success in forcing the Russkis—who are portrayed, incidentally, as bloodthirsty villains, a sign perhaps of our deteriorating relationship with Putin’s Moscow—out of Afghanistan, the war that Wilson and Avrakotos made is what eventually permitted the mujahideen to win and the Taliban to rise—with results that we’re now all too well aware of. To be sure, toward the close Gust refers to the law of unintended consequences in a lovely balcony scene where he relates an old fable that makes the point. But that’s followed by a rousing ceremony, reminiscent of the final scene in the first “Star Wars,” that brings things to a triumphant close. And it doesn’t make up for the gee-whiz quality of the sequences where young Afghanis first use U.S.-supplied rockets to down Soviet helicopters, with the shooters jumping up and down like excited teenagers after their first score (the use of a modernized version of “And He Shall Purify” from Handel’s “Messiah” here is just one of several points at which James Newton Howard’s score goes over the top), or the oddly reverential portrayal of Pakistan’s President Zia (Om Puri), whom Wilson visits at one point and who—despite what Herring might say—was in fact not only the leader of a military coup against an elected government but the man who essentially initiated the move toward Islamic fundamentalism that’s such a problem in the country today. And the sequences of visits to Pakistani refugee camps that convince Charlie to take up the Afghan cause (and do likewise for his wavering House colleague Doc Long, played—almost inevitably—by Ned Beatty, who seems to have a monopoly on such parts) play on the emotions in a way that seems not quite in tune with the movie’s generally hipper air.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to resist scenes like the one in which Wilson and Avrakotos visit a precocious arms expert playing chess in a Washington park, or use belly-dancing as a means of forging an unlikely alliance between Israel and Egypt to supply untraceable arms to the mujahideen. And while Roberts never fits into the trio quite as snugly as Hanks and Hoffman do, she’s delivers the imperiously single-minded southern anti-communist stereotype with aplomb. The three stars rule the roost, but the picture offers nifty supporting turns not only from Beatty and Puri but from Amy Adams as Wilson’s ever-loyal aide, Peter Gerety and Emily Blunt as a well-heeled constituent and his free-spirited daughter, and Ken Stott as a cynical Israeli arms dealer.
All the technical contributions are aces, with crisp camerawork courtesy of Stephen Goldblatt, sharp editing from John Bloom and Antonia Van Drimmelsen, and spot-on period work by production designer Victor Kempster, art directors Bradford Ricker and Marco Trentini and set masters Joshua Lusby and Nancy Haigh.
Ultimately, you could say that on the positive side “Charlie Wilson’s War” makes a strong case for the proposition that one well-placed person can achieve almost anything. You can only hope that audiences will also take away the more subtle point that doing so might lead to problems arguably greater than the ones being solved. But you can be certain that viewers will have a grand time watching Hoffman, Hanks and Roberts strut their stuff while those messages are being delivered.