The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. That chestnut could serve nicely as the tagline for Mike Nichols’ latest beltway romp. “Charlie Wilson’s War” tells the rollicking true story of a little known Texas congressman who loved women, power, scotch and drugs (not necessarily in that order) and, between parties, brought down the Soviet empire.
Tom Hanks is all boozy good ol’ boy wit and Southern charm in the title role. I can’t remember the last time an actor looked like he was having this much fun on screen. Julia Roberts costars as Joanne Herring, a delightfully unlikely ally. A right wing born-again Houston socialite with connections that boggle the mind, Herring arranges for Wilson to meet with the president of Pakistan and visit an Afghan refugee camp in the early 80s in order to see first hand the sorts of atrocities that were being committed by invading Soviet forces.
The trip is an eye opener for the politician, who sits on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. It provides him with the cause of his career and leads to another unlikely alliance. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives as slyly comic a performance as he’s ever given in the role of Gust Avrakotos, a crude but streetsmart CIA bureaucrat who’s just been passed over for the post of his dreams and so hooks up with Wilson to “kill Russians” because, basically, he has nothing better to do.
The two actors have terrific chemistry and riff off one another like partners in a veteran comedy team. Good luck finding a funnier scene this season than the one in which the two characters first meet in the congressman’s office and it turns out the spy has bugged the bottle of single malt he’s just given Wilson as an introductory gift. It’s a marvel of snappy dialogue and precision timing.
Without a word to Congress or the public about what he was up to, Wilson brokered back door agreements between Egypt, Pakistan and Israel to supply Afghan mujahideen rebels with weapons that couldn’t be traced back to the United States. When he took up the cause, the budget for CIA covert ops was $5 million. By the time the last Soviet soldier had retreated, Wilson had schmoozed and back-slapped it up to a cool billion. Soon, the Soviet Union was bankrupt, the Cold War all but a thing of the past.
The film provides a picture of the way things get done in the Capital that’s fascinating and frightening in equal measure. Who better to pen such a portrait than Aaron Sorkin, whose credits include “The West Wing” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and who clearly was born to write a great political comedy? His adaptation of George Crile’s 2003 bestseller is a thing of beauty.
Unlike most comedies, of course, this one doesn’t have a happy ending. Islamic jihad radicals, in fact, had the last laugh. Though the US supplied the mujahideen with the firepower that liberated them, it was all done under the table. No one in the region knew they had the Americans to thank and America did little or nothing to help the Afghan people get back on their feet in the wake of the war. The irony of this story is that what the playboy congressman did eliminated the enemy we knew while arming, training and emboldening another the US wouldn’t see coming until it was too late. “We f****d up the endgame,” the real Charlie Wilson is quoted as saying at the close of the film. I guess that would make a pretty apt tagline too.