Charlie Wilson’s War, adapted by director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin from George Crile’s nonfiction best-seller, has a familiar design — it’s all about a likable scoundrel who discovers what it means to act out of conviction. The film’s underlying twist, though, is tartly ironic. Even as we’re cheering on Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a back-scratching, log-rolling, good-ol’-boy Texas congressman of the 1980s who stumbles onto the cause of his career when he decides to covertly fund Afghanistan’s mujahideen rebels against the Soviet Union, it’s never clear if Wilson’s ”commitment” is anything but a more elevated, and naive, form of hubris.
When we first meet Charlie, he’s sitting in a Las Vegas hot tub, surrounded by drugs and Playboy bimbos. Middle-aged and single, a happy alcoholic who can make a Scotch in the morning look like the height of civility, Charlie adores the perks of power and knows how to hold on to them. Hanks, who has been repressing the sleaze he showed in early roles for too long, bites into Charlie’s buttery corruption, and Nichols and Sorkin turn the wonkish jargon of politics into light comedy by staying absolutely true to it. There’s so much lying going on that each time someone actually comes out with something he believes, it’s like the jabbiest of punchlines.
Charlie’s awakening is spurred by his alliance with Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts, game if a bit waxy), a wealthy born-again right-wing Houston socialite he occasionally sleeps with. Joanne, more clued in to world affairs than Charlie, wants the U.S. to provide heavy-duty weaponry for the Afghanistan war, which is already turning into the Soviets’ Vietnam. Charlie is a Southern Cold War hawk himself (he sits on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee), and once he visits an Afghan refugee camp and meets children with their limbs blown off, he has all the motivation he needs. But any overt involvement would play into Soviet propaganda. To facilitate his covert arms plan, Wilson teams up with a slovenly CIA bureaucrat, Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose desire to spur U.S. action is comically inseparable from the resentment he feels at a life of third-rate espionage gigs. (No one does petty cubicle rage like Hoffman.) The two forge a passel of strange bedfellows, uniting an Israeli arms dealer with the leader of Pakistan.
Charlie Wilson’s War is a journalistic satire of realpolitik in which our jerry-rigged alliances, which looked strategic at the time, end up biting the U.S. in unforeseen ways. Hovering over the film is the audience’s realization that the Afghan war, while it hastened the downfall of the Soviet Union, created the breeding ground for an arguably more toxic threat: the jihad radicals who had nothing but hatred for the West (even as they were only too happy to use its rocket launchers). Instead of running with that irony, though, the movie grows pious about it. The unconvincingly abrupt finale snuffs ambiguity. It says Charlie was right to fight his war — if only Congress had had the will to support his reconstruction dream! All of which sounds a little too close to recently made rationalizations for a certain other war. B+