Like The West Wing, but with more exposed breasts, Charlie Wilson’s War is leftish and glib, entertaining and exasperating, and written by Aaron Sorkin. Based on George Crile’s book on the adventures of a real-life East Texas Congressman, it pokes great good fun at DC inner workings, power plays and wheelie-deals made in Capitol Hill offices and hotel beds. While it makes the point that such reckless behavior has real life-and-mostly-death consequences, this downer comes late, like a smug afterthought.
Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) first shows up in a hotel hot-tub, surrounded by buxom girlies and a pale and flabby “producer.” It’s 1980 and Charlie’s enjoying the perks of being important, or at least having such appearance, though at this moment also distracted by a 60 Minutes report on the TV hanging in the corner. Dan Rather’s wearing his head scarf and saying something about the noble mujahideen, currently struggling against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and Charlie’s intrigued. Not intrigued enough not to snort a few lines with his companions or even to promise he’ll consider financing a movie starring “Crystal,” but intrigued nonetheless.
This quirky side of Charlie, his interest in actual world event, on top of his ability to keep at least a couple of ideas in his head at the same time, makes him endearing in the film’s eyes. And so it tracks his increasing interest in the insurgency while maintaining his daily routine, which apparently invariably includes fighting off scandalous press with the help of a bevy of bosomy girls (one scene has them conniving how to put off U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani, pursuing the “strippers and blow” case that had Charlie in the hot tub). As he makes his way through the grind of labyrinthine assignments and official expectations (asked to serve on the Ethics Committee, he laughs: “Everyone knows I’m on the other side of that issue!”), Charlie is tolerated by his colleagues and beloved by his angels (who include Rachel Nichols and Shiri Appleby). As one so-lovely team member explains to a skeptical visitor, “Congressman Wilson says, ‘You can teach ’em to type, but you can’t teach ’em to grow tits!'”
Currently serving on the House Appropriations committee, Charlie starts patching together funding for the Afghan rebels’ war. Encouraged by his sometime lover, Houston socialite and rabid anti-communist Joanne (Julia Roberts), Charlie begins to take his adventure more seriously. A caricature who wants to bring all Afghanis to the Lord, she’s both small-minded and generous, and above all, a Beltway broker (just how her irresistible seductions work is never clear, but the fact that she’s Julia Roberts seems to stand in for a power more resonant). His moral inclinations were correct, he surmises, following a tryst with the lovely Joanne. As she picks apart her heavily mascara-ed eyelashes with a safety pin, he talks up his cause, and she agrees to help. “I want you to end the Cold War,” she coos, then proceeds to set up a meeting with Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq (Om Puri).
Soon up to his neck in intrigues, Charlie enlists the aid of frustrated CIA operative Gust (“with a T!”) Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Annoyed at the wussy do-nothings at the office, Gust is more than happy to work with the balls-out Charlie. Together they decide on types and numbers of weapons, then send them off to the hinterlands, no strings attached. The results provide hijinksy comedy: bearded locals thrill to their newfound ability to blast Russian helicopters, their spanky new shoulder-mounted missile launchers providing just the sort of “edge” they need (shots of the Russian pilots yacking about the women they know just before being blown from the sky suggest they’re the sort of macho womanizers Charlie might want to be, if he wasn’t so soft and privileged). News of the Russians’ losses inspires the Congressmen to provide still more funding: by the end of Charlie’s war, they’ve upped the ante from half a million or so to over $1 billion: the money winds its way toward the guerrillas without much hitching, Charlie noting along the way that he has, in fact, no authority whatsoever to do what he’s doing.
Wild and crazy, the film appreciates the ride Charlie offers, leaving out a few details of his actual career, its fantasies of the past granting him cowboy gumption and thrills while not lingering on all those long-suffering Middle Eastern villagers he thinks he’s helping. The film’s charm is based in Hanks’ performance: his Charlie is confident and self-deprecating, wily and idealistic, and not a little fond of his rat-a-tat chats with Gust. Their cynicism is practical, based on experience, not ideology, and so their dreams for a future seem almost stakeless: they’re models for getting shit done. (At the same time, Joanne is schooled regarding her Christian evangelizing, but other than that, her simplistic world-changing strategies are, by all appearances, effectively implemented.)
The movie’s coda is surely cautionary. As Charlie is rewarded for his covert activities by an assembly of covert workers, the smiles all around are just shimmery enough to seem sincere. But no one admits to what’s been done, or follows up (no funding for schools in the bombed out Afghan mountains). None of the participants can — or will — anticipate the al-Qaeda punchline, of course, but the film includes a coda to ensure you know where their chortling and short-sighted self-interests will lead.