Much as he did with 1998's Primary Colors, Mike Nichols takes a recent moment in history and turns it into a sophisticated and entertaining but ultimately shallow film.
Once upon a time, before Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, Afghanistan was the frontline for the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War. Only no one knew about it. This is partially because of liberal Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks). An unrepentant boozer and lady's man, Wilson was also smart, popular and remarkably adept at foreign affairs. This prompts right-wing Houston debutante Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) — whom Wilson had bedded in the past — to enlist his aid against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A commie-hating activist, Herring wanted the United States to covertly fund and arm local freedom fighters (the Mujahadeen). Partnered with a hilariously droll CIA operative named Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Wilson concocts an outrageous plan to bring together Egyptian, Arabic and Israeli players while ballooning Defense appropriations from $5 million to $1 billion to help Afghans shoot down the Russian helicopters that have ravaged their country.
Adapted from the 2003 bestseller by journalist George Crile, Aaron Sorkin's sprightly script may be too snappy and Capra-esque to be believable, but it makes for enjoyable storytelling. The dialogue pops with wit and humor as these real-life characters slither through congressional offices, political meeting rooms, covert planning sessions and belly dancing nightclubs. In one terrifically choreographed scene, Hanks forces Hoffman to repeatedly enter and leave an office meeting as he deals with an erupting cocaine-stripper controversy. The movie is expertly paced and never overstays its welcome.
Hanks is masterfully understated and charming while Roberts acquits herself ably. But it's Hoffman who steals the show. No matter which character he's playing alongside, the scene becomes a comedic soft-shoe of clever banter and political incisiveness.
It's the film's final reel that disappoints. Rushed and overly reliant on montages of archival footage, the payoff is as dramatically unsatisfying as it is superficial. Failing to significantly connect the rest of the film to broader political implications — for the region and the United States — Nichols and Sorkin trade breezy repartee and political irony for context and allegory. For all its smarts, Charlie Wilson's War ends up trivializing its subject, barely acknowledging the very real fact the same righteous patriotism that saved all those Afghan children from the Soviets also turned them into anti-American Taliban.
After its awkward ending, Nichol's film closes with a poignantly apt quote from its title character: "Those things happened and they were glorious, and then we fucked up the end of the game." Too bad art ends up imitating life.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.