The saddest thing about the funny political satire Charlie Wilson's War is that it's destined to inspire far more talk about Julia Roberts' hair and makeup than America's geopolitical actions and mistakes. Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin at least prove savvy enough to sugarcoat its Cold War lessons in risqué humor. Where most of the recent Iraq war films, such as In the Valley of Elah or Redacted, emphasized anger and grief, Charlie Wilson's War uses wit to draw attention to the mismanagement of power and its unintended consequences.
Early on we find playboy Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) as he cavorts in a hot tub with nude chicks and would-be wheeler-dealers pitching a TV series "Like 'Dallas' set in Washington." Wilson shows that he's got a little more on his mind than partying when he sees Dan Rather's infamous broadcast, in traditional shepherd garments, about Afghanistan's resistance to the Soviet invasion.
One of Texas' richest, most politically active women (Roberts) gives Wilson a nudge to boost the U.S. Congress' covert operations budget and give the Afghans a fighting chance. With the help of world-weary CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Wilson embarks on a globe-trotting mission to line up support and funding from Pakistanis, Israelis and Arabs, despite centuries-old animosities.
Here Sorkin writes very much in his "West Wing" voice – part policy wonk, part screwball comedian – and does justice to the Byzantine complexity of supporting the Afghans without turning the Cold War into a hot one. While the filmmakers' politics aren't hard to guess (there's a throwaway knock on Rudy Giuliani), Charlie Wilson's War avoids walking into some obvious arguments. The script carefully avoids finding parallels between Afghanistan's insurgency against an occupying force and any contemporary military actions, nor does it dwell on the differences between Charlie Wilson's war and Iran-Contra.
Charlie Wilson's War wades into the touchy subject of religion. Roberts' socialite defends her up-front attitude about Christianity with, "I talk about God because I want him on our side," but the line gets countered with, "Sooner or later, God's going to be on both sides." The film not only details events that anticipate the Taliban and al-Qaeda, it implicitly cautions that religion could trump the good intentions of future military actions.
The film's discussions of oversight committees and weapons systems unfold in the breeziest voice possible, with Hanks' good-ol'-boy, can-do optimism finding a perfect match in Hoffman's terse, no-bullshit pragmatism. Like Hanks, Roberts pours on the Southern accent a little thick, but captures her character's combination of vanity and idealism. How does she look? A little harsh. The film draws attention to her stark eyebrows and eyelashes, emphasizing the masklike glamour of a former Southern beauty queen. Nichols also finds room to give her a bikini scene, as if to confirm that she's lost weight since having kids.
Charlie Wilson's War clocks in at just more than an hour and a half, which is pleasingly (almost shockingly) concise for a film with Oscar aspirations. The film loses some of its intensity in its third act. However important Wilson's actions may have been, they remain mostly a hemisphere away from the Afghan rebels, diminishing the dramatic stakes. Plus, recent history casts a pall over the film's triumphant conclusion. The real ramifications of Charlie Wilson's war are still being played out.