'Charlie Wilson': Firing on All Cylinders

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Wilson went to Washington, full of high ideals, committed to progressivism and the little guy. But Mr. Smith became an icon of idealism so pure that it had to be movie-phony. Mr. Wilson dated beautiful babes, hung out in Vegas, loved his daily glasses of amber beverage on the rocks, had an all-female office staff with the biggest collective bust measurement on the Hill, and destroyed the Soviet empire.

Thus "Charlie Wilson's War," Mike Nichols's laff-a-minute chronicle of the congressman's crusade to ram funding through the House Appropriations Committee to supply arms -- notably ground-to-air missiles -- to the Afghani mujaheddin. He succeeded and the Russian warbirds began falling from the skies, crashing, burning and all but ending the Soviet occupation. It's also possible -- opinions vary -- that this development set into action internal vibrations that brought a lot of walls tumbling down. Was what came afterward better or worse? We'll never know.

This movie probably gets the Washington process better than any since Otto Preminger's underrated "Advise and Consent" back in 1962. It's not about men of virtue doing the impossible, but men of flaws doing the doable, but just barely. You don't want to look too carefully at the process, which is haphazard, greased by alcohol and a barter system of favors and flattery, big moneybags in the home state, and a lot of gumption and git-'er-done ingenuity.

Charlie, a multi-term Democrat from rural Texas who was a low-ranking grad of the Naval Academy, is played by Tom Hanks, at his unchallenged but affable best. This may be a first: I would gauge Hanks as actually much less attractive than Wilson, a notorious roue and ladies' man. In several of its tropes, "Charlie Wilson's War" turns on Charlie's charms with the opposite sex. Too bad they didn't make the movie when authentic Texan Sam Elliott was younger; with his drawl, his languid charm, his dark, piercing eyes, he'd have made a far more convincing Charlie than does Hanks, and you wouldn't be left with the occasional curiosity as to why she -- this could be any of several shes -- seems so attracted to Forrest Gump.

But the best thing about the film is the speed at which Nichols, the director, from Aaron Sorkin's snarky script, moves the thing along and keeps the cracks wise. In fact, the best relationship in the film isn't sexually driven, it's banter-driven: the weird chemistry between Charlie and CIA field agent Gust Avrakotos, an oddball Greek American with shrewd street wiles ("I've been targeted for 25 years for death by people who know what they're doing!"). Avrakotos is played in high brio by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is terrific, as he almost always is. And the movie is calibrated to give him some big moments: his explosion at a pea-brained superior in agency headquarters is probably too cute and clever to have happened that way in real life, but it's a tour de force of comic acting.

Nichols is such an old pro that he keeps everything just flying along. In part, the film seems almost like a Howard Hawks film, with fast clever banter between antagonists and odd turns of event. It's almost like a remake of "I Was a Male War Bride," only this time under the title "I Was a Male War Midwife," for that's exactly what Charlie is.

The movie, from George Crile's bestseller of the same name, begins with Charlie in a Las Vegas hot tub among naked women, champagne, cocaine and other signals of high decadence. He's watching "60 Minutes" and catches a Dan Rather report on the struggling mujaheddin in the then-backwater of rugged, far-off Afghanistan. He is shocked to discover how little the United States is doing to help the guerrillas. The movie then follows Charlie on the road to Damascus -- well, Kabul -- as he is converted from go-along-to-get-along libertine to shrewd, committed political warrior, horse-trading, soothing, cajoling and brokering arms deals between sworn enemies as the CIA clandestine budget for this patch of mountain and desert in Central Asia goes from $5 million to $80 million a year. Much of this money went to Stingers, hand-held anti-aircraft missiles that cost $70,000 apiece and knocked down devil machines worth millions.

Nichols, who directed "The Graduate" 40 years ago, knows devil machines when he sees them. And rather than overdo the scenes of starving refugees with their double-amputee kids -- you can't have too many scenes like that in the same movie with naked congressmen in hot tubs -- he demonizes his enemy not as man but as vehicle. This is the awesome Soviet Mi-24 Hind helicopter, with its insectoid complexity, its hives of gun barrels and rocket launchers under the stubby wings, and its multi-step series of cockpits. Nichols doesn't bother to characterize the Soviet aviators or to conjure up an evil, harsh-faced Red Colonel, that staple of '50s agitprop, but he eavesdrops twice, in pre- and post-Stinger days, on the cockpit chatter. The first instance displays ho-hum pros going about the dreary business of cleansing the landscape of running peasants. The choppers are like the Death Star, awesome in the firepower they bring to bear on the virtually defenseless. They hover or leap, they chase and dart agilely, and wherever they spot life they extinguish it with fusillades of auto-cannon fire or rocket barrages.

Thus it's so nice when, chatting banally about love affairs in the bland, affectless voices of the truly disinterested, they notice the first Stinger vectoring up to resolve them into fire and ash.

Gosh, does this movie have it all or what? Smart dialogue, Julia Roberts (in a smallish role as a wealthy patroness of both Charlie and free Afghanistan) in a bikini and looking grrrrrr-eattttt, and Russian helicopters going boom! It's also short! What's not to love?

Charlie Wilson's War (96 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong language, sexual content and nudity.

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