Film and TV

Charlie Wilson's War

Hell of a thing, getting Mike Nichols to adapt the yer-kiddin'-me story of Charlie Wilson, the congressman from Lufkin, Texas, who damn near single-handedly helped the Afghans kick out the Russians in the 1980s.

Seems about par for the course with this story, in which everybody knows somebody who can do something to shape the course of something goin' on in the wide, wide world of sports, politically speaking. You've got a liberal congressman from the Bible Belt who loves him some booze and beaver; a mighty beautiful Houston socialite who counted among her many exes an oil man connected to sheikhs and intelligence-community power brokers; a disheveled, disgruntled CIA man looking to put the wood to the Russkies; Egyptian, Israeli and Pakistani officials brokering arms deals over belly-dancing distractions; Playboy playmates soaking in hot tubs; then-U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani sniffing at the congressional coke-sniffers; and assorted other do-gooders and up-to-no-gooders trying to keep secret the biggest covert war ever conducted by the good ol' U.S. of A.

Nichols, directing Aaron Sorkin's screenplay based on the late 60 Minutes producer's exhaustive book, certainly gets the tone right: The big-screen Charlie Wilson's War, clocking in at 93 fly-by minutes, is dark and funny and mean and sexy, damned near pitch-black perfect considering that at the end of this boozy comedy you wind up with, oh, Osama bin Laden.

Wilson, played by Tom Hanks with an accent a little more Suth'n than Texan, is Nichols's kind of hero: fucked up beyond belief, but not beyond redemption. In the movie, as in life, Wilson's the "pussyhound" (as Molly Ivins called him) who drinks Scotch on the Hill during working hours, keeps a staff of beautiful women collectively known as "Charlie's Angels" and more than likely enjoys cocaine in the company of strippers — to which Nichols and Sorkin say, "So what?" The way they depict it, a man could have just as good a time getting laid as saving a country; it's just a different kind of explosion, that's all. They don't judge. They admire.

And whispering sweet somethings in Wilson's ear is his better half in this adventure: Joanne Herring, who's smitten with the cause of the Mujahideen in need of U.S. military might and moolah. Herring, a Minutewoman who once married an actual baron, was as much the actress as the woman portraying her (Julia Roberts). As Crile points out, she, too, was all about reinvention — from lil' ol' nobody to Houston TV talk-show host to a dear friend of Pakistan's president, Zia ul-Haq. She's more than happy to share bed, bath and beyond with Charlie if he'll shoot a few million toward the freedom fighters in Afghanistan. Saving those people, well, it's the role of a lifetime.

And then there's the third member of their love triangle: CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, the only man with whom Wilson could have pulled off his billion-dollar war. Avrakotos was a bored, disaffected "rogue" agent for whom killing Russians was a right, not a privilege, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is a dead ringer for the chain-smoking skirt-chaser. Avrakotos and Wilson are brothers from another mother. Add Herring to this and you've got one outrageous unholy trinity.

The punchline to Charlie Wilson's War is that after spending $1 billion on helping the Afghans liberate their country from the God-hatin' Russkies, we refused to pony up a lousy $1 million to rebuild their schools. Oh, shit, I can't believe we created the Devil. Who needs writers? You can't make this oh-shit up.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky