You thought it was Ronald Reagan who brought down the Soviet empire? Or maybe Mikhail Gorbachev? "Charlie Wilson's War" tells another, wilder, considerably more amusing inside story. In this version of history, based on George Crile's nonfiction best seller, the credit for the routing of the Soviet Army by the mujahedin rebels in Afghanistan belongs to a little-known congressman named Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a womanizing, scandal-plagued, hard-drinking, liberal pol from Texas. And he has two unlikely partners: his occasional lover, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a born-again, right-wing millionaire socialite, and Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a tough, uncouth working-class Greek-American CIA officer who likes nothing better than killing Russians.
In director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's rapid-fire account we see how these three well-connected allies, inspired by anti-communist fever and humanitarian outrage over the plight of the besieged Afghans, secretly funded the covert war. They supplied the rebels with weapons that could never be traced back to the United States, while arm-twisting Pakistan, Egypt and Israel into working together to help bring about the Soviet defeat. Wilson, a good ole boy of enormous personal charm, was strategically situated on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, where he managed to raise the funding for these covert ops from a measly $5 million to $1 billion—without informing Congress or the public about what he was up to. "Charlie Wilson's War" gives us a somewhat alarming snapshot of how things get done in Washington. You may not be sure whether you're meant to cheer or wince.
This may sound wonkish, but it's played with the rat-a-tat rhythms of a screwball comedy. Nichols aims both high and low, careering from satire to sentiment, sex comedy to hagiography, sitcom to situation paper, not always coherently. At times you're not sure how the filmmakers feel about the story's glaring paradoxes. Sorkin's witty screenplay—more in the mode of Paddy Chayefsky's "Network" than his own "West Wing"—crams an amazing amount of information into its brisk 94 minutes, but it may be too short. We want to know a lot more about Roberts's big-haired power-brokering dynamo (how does she wield such influence?), and it's hard to buy Charlie's supposed deep feelings for Joanne: when he tears up after hearing she's remarried, it comes out of nowhere.
Hanks is winning—his Charlie is a courtly and whip-smart reprobate—but it's a stretch for this quintessentially life-size star to be cast as a force of nature. Nor is there an ounce of sexual chemistry between him and Roberts. The movie catches fire, however, when Hoffman's rude, pugnacious Gust shows up, a tornado of hilarious rough weather. The bluebloods who run the CIA hate Gust's street style, and he hates their timid bureaucratic souls. Hoffman brings out the best in Hanks, too—they riff off each other with delicious comic teamwork.
Of course, hanging over this ironic tale is the deeper historical irony—that many of the "good guy" rebels Charlie is funding (and we're cheering) will become our mortal enemies. At the end of this story, any informed viewer knows, lies big-time blowback. Surprisingly, Nichols and Sorkin play this trump card timidly. Is this admirable restraint or cold feet? Are they afraid of spoiling the feel-good uplift of Charlie's victory with the harsh downdraft of history? It's as if "Titanic" ended with a celebratory shipboard banquet, followed by a postscript: by the way, it sank.