By Christy Lemire
“Charlie Wilson’s War,” a crisp, biting satire that confidently mixes sex and politics, glides along so smartly and smoothly, it makes you wonder how it’s possible that director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin never teamed up before.
Based on the true story of a congressman (Tom Hanks), a Houston socialite (Julia Roberts) and a CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who conspired to arm Afghanistan’s mujahedeen against Soviet invaders in the early 1980s, “Charlie Wilson’s War” represents comfortable territory for both men, despite the complexity of its subject matter.
We are talking, after all, about the director of “Catch-22” and “Primary Colors” and the writer of “A Few Good Men” and TV’s “The West Wing.” Everyone is so glamorous and witty and intriguing, they make you wish government could be this much fun all the time — except it’s not, which we would already know without Sorkin self-righteously beating us over the head at the end. That’s also typical of his work. The star power is pretty irresistible, though.
When you’re thinking about a Scotch-guzzling, good ol’ boy bachelor, Hanks may not immediately spring to mind, but he finds the sweetness within Wilson’s legendary charisma.
First, though, we meet Wilson, luxuriating in a Las Vegas hot tub surrounded by strippers and blow in 1979. The Democrat from Texas’ 2nd District — “the liberal from Lufkin,” as he was known — seems just as comfortable in this setting as he would be walking the halls of Capitol Hill. He’s a bad boy who does good things — or maybe it’s the other way around.
While in this den of debauchery, Wilson happens to catch (perhaps a bit too conveniently) Dan Rather reporting on “60 Minutes” about the plight of Afghan rebels, and he is moved by what he sees. Soon afterward, while snuggling with a gorgeous, much younger constituent played by Emily Blunt, he gets a call from longtime friend-with-benefits Joanne Herring (Roberts), the sixth-richest woman in Texas and a fervent anti-communist, urging him to amass funds for this very cause.
He ends up meeting with the disgruntled Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), whose decades as a secret agent in the Middle East and Central Asia provide the exact connections he’s looking for. And here’s where “Charlie Wilson’s War” turns from a light, stylish farce into a comedy with the ability to knock you over.
It’s a giddy, surprisingly quick ride — that is, until Wilson finds a soul somewhere along the way. For all its humor, “Charlie Wilson’s War” is clearly meant to serve as a reminder of how those weapons got into Afghan hands in the first place, which helped contribute to the war we seem inextricably involved in now. We didn’t need some of the sentiments Wilson expresses at the end to tell us that, and the final quote that appears on the screen before the credits roll seems like an especially heavy-handed exclamation point. Come on, guys. Give your audience a little more credit than that.