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Arts & Culture

Charlie Wilson's War on DVD

The film begins in 1989 with the Democratic Congressman from the Second Congressional District of Texas receiving an award for the role he played in the defeat of Communism. Previously known more for his drinking and womanizing, this once obscure congressman became known for leading Congress into backing the largest CIA covert operation supplying the Afghan Mujahideen in its efforts against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The film then flashes back to tell us how Wilson got to that podium to accept that award.

Now before you wonder whether this will be a boring polemic in the vein of Lions for Lambs , let me remind you that the man adapting Crile's book is TV's Aaron Sorkin, who made the White House entertaining for multiple seasons with The West Wing . And let me also point out that after the somber awards ceremony - in which Wilson is not in his element - the film cuts to him partying naked in a hot tub with a pair of sexy and similarly unclothed woman. Now Wilson is in his element. He's also being pitched by a guy who wants to make a TV show that sounds a little like The West Wing . Wilson, we quickly discover is quite a colorful character and more than capable of carrying a film.

Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson's War (Universal)


But Wilson (played by Tom Hanks in one of his best performances) is not the only player in this political game. There's also the conservative and very wealthy Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), with whom Wilson has a sexual fling and an odd political partnership. And there's Gust Avrakotos (a memorable Philip Seymour Hoffman) as a hard-drinking, cynical but skilled CIA agent who's fed up with the idiots he works for. When Avrakotos comes to visit the congressman, he notices all the hot young women working in the office. When he inquires about it, one of the women replies: "Congressman Wilson, he has an expression. He says, & 'You can teach them to type, but you can't teach them to grow tits.'" For the first time we see Avrakotos impressed. Then when Avrakotos and Wilson meet and size each other up the exchange is as follows:

Wilson : "You're no James Bond."
Avrakotos : "You're no Thomas Jefferson, either. Let's call it even."

And with that they join forces.

Crile (a former 60 Minutes producer) made his 2003 best seller a riveting and eye-opening look at back room politics and legislative maneuvering. Wilson is painted as a man who enjoys life and has it pretty easy because his constituents just want low taxes. Thiks allows him to coast through congress voting yes on whatever he wants and on whatever will win him political favors. But Wilson is moved to do more than just ride on cruise control when he's introduced to the atrocities in Afghanistan. He's prompted to mobilize his entire staff and muster all his political savvy to help fund the rebel forces fighting the Soviets.

This film may be based on real events but it plays out like a sharp and often absurd political satire. Both Nichols and Sorkin keep the pace fast - like a good sitcom - and the length short. The whole thing feels like a whirlwind. As in The West Wing, a lot of dialogue heavy scenes take place as people walk through the halls of Congress or mingle at parties. Everyone always seems to be moving or jockeying for position. Nichols keeps the performances bright even when the material goes dark. He even manages to get real performances from Hollywood stars Hanks and Roberts. Hanks is surprisingly low key in a flamboyant role. Sporting a bit of a gut (but not as much of one as Hoffman), he puts his down home charm to good effect, making us believe that Wilson is the kind of likeable fellow that could talk people into doing what he wants. It's a surprisingly unself-conscious and easygoing performance, but one that also reveals an underlying passion and idealism. Herring is a socialite who has a certain celebrity and Nichols put Roberts' own celeb image to good use here. But the man who steals the show is Hoffman. His Avrakotos is a prickly malcontent who's both proud of and pissed off about his lack of Ivy League schooling. But he also has the street smarts and knowledge to get things done. He's simply brilliant. I also want to make quick mention of Amy Adams as Wilson's buoyant assistant, just the way she confidently bounces down the hall with her red ponytail swaying back and forth with perky energy says everything about her character.


Since the film has already been out in theaters and these events have already played out in the media, I feel it's okay to discuss what happens in the end. [But if you've lived in ignorance of all these events and want to be surprised by the film, skip this paragraph.] So Charlie and company score a victory by getting the funding they need to finance a covert war that hands the Soviets a humiliating defeat and brings an end to the Cold War. All good, right? Well sort of. As Avrakotos points out in his story about the Zen Master, you always have to wait and see to determine the repercussions of any action. So the end result and unanticipated consequences of their actions are that the sophisticated weapons given to the Afghan rebels are now being used by the Taliban and others against U.S. troops. And since congress was happy to fund the war but not the schools or infrastructure, what success was achieved over there quickly turned to disaster.

Maybe Wilson provides the best epitaph: "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... then we f--ked up the end game."

Go rent this one, you'll be entertained and even a little enlightened, an all too rare combination in a Hollywood film. Among the DVD bonus features is an interview with the real Charlie Wilson.

Companion viewing: The Candidate, Catch-22, The Last Hurrah, Dr. Strangelove