In 2007, even casual observers of the war on terror know right where Kabul sits on the map. But in a 1980s era of Teletype newswires, long before the permanent stamp of terrorism on American life, Kabul could just as easily have been mistaken for a city in Uzbekistan or even India.
For Charlie Wilson, a Congressman from a Texas district primarily concerned with preserving nativity scenes, Kabul became a mission. Inspiration just happened to strike him while sitting naked in a Vegas hot tub filled with strippers and cocaine.
Of all the craned necks in the room, Wilson’s was the only one staring at a news report on the Mujahideen, rebels in Afghanistan futilely fighting off airborne Soviet invasion.
Charlie Wilson’s War is a chronological, cautionary tale of political playmaking amid international tensions — a story of how a playboy politician, a rich Texan belle and a misanthropic CIA agent collaborated to increase America’s aid to Afghanistan rebels by almost 10,000 percent.
But Mike Nichols directs it more with a tone of farcical comedy than forceful condemnation. Electrically adapted by Aaron Sorkin from George Crile’s nonfiction book and packing plenty into 98 minutes, it’s an efficient, incisive dose of acidic humor and sobering reality. Or, in other words, the only “war” movie people are likely to see, largely because of its Oscar-winning, A-list cast.
Even as a womanizing louse with a taste for the most illegal candy, Tom Hanks is oddly likeable as Wilson, especially when spinning a nostalgic, sad and satirical story of his birth into the political machine. Now more experienced in political hedonism, Wilson has an all-female staff that makes his Congressional offices resemble a changing room for Hugh Hefner’s grotto.
Nevertheless inspired by the report he saw in Vegas, he arranges for the CIA’s paltry budget for Afghanistan black ops to be doubled. That move attracts Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), Texas’s sixth-wealthiest woman, for whom the Mujahideen is a pet cause.
Since receiving her Oscar, the 40-year-old Roberts seems primarily interested in reminding audiences how grand — and, in the case of a gratuitous pool-exit scene, built — she is. As her first onscreen pairing with Hanks, it’s a slight letdown as they share snappy dialogue but no chemistry.
Wilson lands in both Joanne’s bed and her wheelhouse of influence with the leader of Pakistan, on whose border starving, disfigured Afghani refugees have fled to a dingy shantytown. As inspired by Cold War supremacy as genuine humanitarianism, Wilson schemes to get the Mujahideen what it needs to take out helicopters and jets through secret negotiations with Israel, Pakistan and Egypt.
Wilson’s CIA ally is Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a brusque Greek case agent with an unfiltered mouth that’s been a bane to his career and a boon to his convictions. From the first moment of his irate introduction, there’s nothing covert about how Hoffman burgles the whole film. He’s as brilliantly brash as ever, simultaneously on offense and defense with deep-intel knowledge.
However, Hoffman understands Gust is uproarious only to the audience; to him, each profane, unedited rant serves as serious commentary. Hoffman’s method proves crucial in the final reel, when the long-term ramifications of pumping money and missiles into a hostile region start to crystallize.
With a sure hand, Nichols relays the domino effect of how and why Americans know so much about Kabul today. As a power play against a seemingly eternal Soviet enemy, Wilson had his peers’ ears. But once the state-sponsored revolution was televised, the luster came off Afghanistan, and, in time, Wilson finds out exactly where his good intentions lead.
Charlie Wilson’s War is a crackling satire about how insanely far political palm-greasing could go just 20 years ago. But its chilling closing quote succinctly sums up just how ideology, infantry and a political disinterest would come back to haunt our nation.