Comedic 'Charlie Wilson's War' has a tragic punch line

In the Aaron Sorkin-penned film, a wily congressman (Tom Hanks) and a wealthy socialite (Julia Roberts) team up to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The result: A snip-snap film that plays like a political sitcom.

The dreadful box office returns of this year's major political movies – "Rendition," "In the Valley of Elah," "Grace is Gone," "Redacted," and "Lions for Lambs" – has convinced a lot of pundits that audiences are interested only in films that have nothing to do with today's wartime dispatches. But might the real reason for the turnout have more to do with the fact that these movies, by and large, are dismal?

"Charlie Wilson's War" is based on the George Criles nonfiction bestseller and stars Tom Hanks as the liberal Democratic Congressman from Texas who covertly helped fund the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan in the wake of their 1979 invasion. Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin clearly do not want to walk the same plank as those Iraq-themed films. As if in retaliation, they have taken such a snippy-snappy approach to their subject that you almost feel as if you're watching a pilot to a new political sitcom.

Sorkin, of course, created "The West Wing," and Nichols has "Primary Colors" on his résumé. Well, "Primary Colors" was no great shakes, and the best of "West Wing" puts "Charlie Wilson's War" in the shade. Still, it's nice to watch a political movie that, for a change, isn't trying to save our souls. It's possible to have a good time with this movie while, at the same time, regretting all that it isn't.

We first see Charlie cavorting with a couple of lovelies in a Las Vegas hot tub. But his attention is distracted by a nearby TV set broadcasting Dan Rather from Afghanistan. So here we have it in a nutshell: Wilson is both a 'good time Charlie' – his nickname on Capitol Hill – and a politico. The film follows him along the continuum from party animal to righteous crusader.

Hanks may at first seem like an unlikely choice to play a seasoned Texas playboy bachelor, but he's so ingratiating that he almost pulls it off. You're always aware of him giving a performance but, then again, Charlie Wilson was always putting on airs, too. Actors love playing politicians because, like it or not, politicians are a species of actor.

Charlie's opposite number is Houston socialite Joanne Herring, played by Julia Roberts in a wide accent and a big hairdo. Like Hanks, she's not entirely believable, either, but she doesn't make the mistake of going all daffy on us. Joanne is a major power broker who, because of her hatred of Communism, gets her sometime lover Charlie to do what Congress won't – fund the mujahideen big time. As a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Wilson sets in motion a covert operation that raises over a billion dollars without ever letting either Congress or the public in on it.

An indispensable ally in all this is Gust Avrakotos, a blunt blue-collar Central Intelligence Agency officer played with such relish by Philip Seymour Hoffman that he swipes every scene he's in. (Gust has the best lines, it's true, but Hoffman is such a marvel that I'm convinced he could have stolen scenes from Olivier just by reading the phone book.) The yin-yang teamwork between Charlie and Gust is the movie's wittiest and most heartfelt aspect. When these two are really humming, they're like a superhero duo cooked up by a precocious politics maven who's overdosed on "Doonesbury."

The question is how seriously should we take "Charlie Wilson's War." As political history, it's negligent: Charlie and Co. are such (covert) credit hogs that you'd never know that Reagan, or Gorbachev for that matter, had anything to do with the fall of Communism. It's also a bit troubling that all this Capitol Hill covertness is celebrated without the slightest irony. And when irony finally rears its ugly head and we are informed that the freedom fighters of then are the terrorists of today, it's too little, too late.

The filmmakers, just like everybody else he ever met, have been seduced by good time Charlie, and the seduction proves the film's undoing. His saga only retains its full-throated, black-comic force if viewed from the perspective of today's headlines. The way it's been done here, it's a success story without a punch line. Grade: B

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