December 20, 2007

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Charlie Wilson’s War (R)
Aaron Sorkin is at his firecracker best moving Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman around the chessboard during a particularly touchy time in world history in Charlie Wilson’s War, a comedy/drama/cautionary tale about the 1980s war in Afghanistan.

Charlie Wilson (Hanks) is a good-time fellow. We meet the 1980s version of Charlie, a U.S. Congressman from Texas, while he is partying with strippers and a Playboy model — along with some shady fellow trying to get Charlie to help fund his idea for a TV show that is “Dallas set in Washington, D.C.” — in a Las Vegas hotel room. Charlie loves being in Congress because, he tells us, his constituents don’t ask for much and he can spend his time doling out favors to other representatives who need votes and then collecting on those favors. After doing one such favor, he asks in return to be put on the board of the Kennedy Center because it’s a great place to take dates but he can’t afford the tickets.

And, boy, does Charlie like to date. His office is staffed by women who look like they’re auditioning for a slot on Charlie’s Angels. His most conservative staffer, Bonnie (Amy Adams), follows him everywhere, including to the house of Joanne (Roberts), the sixth-richest woman in Texas. She bids Charlie to come visit her so he can watch a movie about Afghanistan and hear about all the horrible things being done to the people there by the invading Soviets. A bit of a religious extremist, Joanne — after first getting Charlie in the sack — tells him about the horrors of the war and then explains how he can help her fight back and ultimately beat the Soviets by giving the non-communist resistance fighters the weapons to shoot down Soviet helicopters.

(The oft-mentioned scene might be the one that wins Julia Roberts an Oscar nomination for this movie. She explains not just her point of view on the war but what Charlie can do to help her fight it while she methodically and precisely reapplies her mascara, separating the lashes with a safety pin. The scene is marvelous and is breath-takingly well-shot.)

Charlie is able to get Joanne her war in part because he sits on subcommittees that allow him to appropriate the money for covert CIA operations without having to explain what the money is for or who gets it. Of course, money is only half the equation — the other half involves getting the right weapons (weapons that are either Soviet-made or appear to be Soviet-made) to the right resistance people. For that, Charlie turns to Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), a CIA agent we first meet when he’s yelling obscenities at his boss — punctuated by the smash of a window — for giving an assignment he’d worked for to another agent. A friend gives Gust a chance to fight the Russians, which he takes in the form of work on the CIA’s Afghanistan desk. When Charlie meets Gust and asks him what the CIA’s plans for Afghanistan are, Gust says he’s working on it. Who, asks Charlie.

“Me and three other guys,” Gust says.

The movie takes us through the complicated international negotiations involving Israel and Pakistan and complicated congressional lobbying involving convincing a committee to pay increasingly large amounts to this convert non-war and winning over the committee’s head. This is exactly the sort of nerdy material with which Aaron Sorkin shines. He loves to show us the inner workings of an institution and does so here without the melodrama or the self-importance that bogged down the later seasons of The West Wing. The script is rat-a-tat fast with the quips and the dead pan jokes coming one right after another, all the while feeling like completely genuine dialogue.

Sorkin couldn’t have asked for a better team to act out his poli-sci geek machinations than Hanks and Hoffman. (Or a better puppet master than Julia Roberts in this delightfully grown-up role.) Hanks plays a glad-hander; Hoffman a steamroller. But it’s also Hanks who tends to believe in the rightness of things and Hoffman who is always wary. It’s Gust who warns Charlie about the religious extremism of Joanne and, in a scene at the end of the movie subtly scored with the sound of an approaching airplane, Gust who warns Charlie that he has to stick with Afghanistan — follow through with the U.S.’s promises — once the Soviets have left. Naively, Charlie tries but finds that not even a portion of the millions that were there for bombs are available for schools.

The movie is based on a true story and the events of the last seven years have spoiled the ending of the movie more than I ever could. But this isn’t a War on Terror picture — in fact nothing that makes you laugh so heartily and so often can even be called a war movie, really. It’s a political farce with tragic consequences and a brilliant character study of the people who, without meaning to, make history and set in motion the events that shape the coming decades. You leave the theater wondering, who are the Charlie Wilsons now and what future trouble have they already gotten us in to. A

Rated R for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use. Directed by Mike Nichols and written by Aaron Sorkin (from a book by George Crile), Charlie Wilson’s War is an hour and 37 minutes long and will open in wide release on Friday, Dec. 21. It is distributed by Universal Pictures.