Whole chunks of rapid-fire exposition tumble from the mouths of Washington politicos, Central Asian despots, and Texan bluebloods in Charlie Wilson’s War, unmistakably the artificial rat-tat-tat of Aaron Sorkin, who adapted the true tall tale of an alcoholic, womanizing East Texas congressman operating behind the scenes to arm Afghanistan’s mujahideen guerrillas against the brutal Soviet occupation of the 1980s. That everyone sounds like a tart-tongued but mushy-hearted liberal, or is filtered through that sensibility which served Sorkin so profitably in the wish-fulfillment fantasy of The West Wing, doesn’t play to the advantage of the scenario, which can’t do justice to both the decade-long skein of America’s biggest covert war and Wilson’s self-destructive playboy bent. Since the strengths of miscast star Tom Hanks and director Mike Nichols lie in comedy—no matter what the Motion Picture Academy says—the sordid intricacies of the Cold War’s last battle never stand a chance of prevailing (particularly in an obviously truncated hour-and-a-half cut).
Utilizing his perch on the House Appropriations committee, the hawkish but socially liberal Democrat Wilson globetrots to cut deals for high-tech weaponry on behalf of the Afghans at the urging of his rabidly anti-Communist lover, a born-again Houston socialite (Julia Roberts, holding her head still and seemingly prepping for a remake of Giant), and with the frank counsel of a surly C.I.A. lifer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who handles the war at HQ with “three other guys.” Hoffman pockets most of his scenes by underplaying the deadpan spook, but Hanks doesn’t have the bullishness of a backroom legislative dynamo, though he’s a more plausible dissipated lothario than his résumé might suggest. (Both the Hanks and Hoffman characters have been noticeably sanitized into rascally rogues from the cruder portraits in George Crile’s nonfiction bestseller; Rep. Wilson was a drunken hit-and-run driver who squired babes on federally-funded vacations masked as diplomacy, the intel guy a race-baiter who employed every extralegal and unconstitutional maneuver he could get away with.) The film’s split agenda is typified by its most farcical set piece: Hanks repeatedly dismisses Hoffman from an office huddle on anti-aircraft guns so he and his all-buxom staff can contain a burgeoning drug scandal that threatens to finish him in politics.
As for the nuts-and-bolts of political strategy, Nichols navigates them as prosaically as he did in his last treatment of a sybaritic pol, the trivial Primary Colors, but more mortifying are the perfunctory scenes of Wilson getting choked up at a massive Afghan refugee camp on the Pakistan frontier, and the first mujahideen downings of Soviet helicopters with shoulder-fired missiles supplied by the U.S. (The Russian pilots who get fried seem to be subtitled parodies of the studs in Top Gun.) A single combat montage with on-screen USSR casualty statistics substitutes for any dramatic sense of how the David-and-Goliath dynamic shifted. Worse yet, the filmmakers only skittishly acknowledge that the Red Army’s departure was followed by the theocratic crush of Taliban rule, and the blowback of jihadists newly trained in modern warfare turning their wrath on the only remaining infidel superpower.
Since you can’t end a comedy with 9/11, Sorkin and Nichols get off with Hoffman warning that “the crazies are rolling into Kandahar,” Hanks failing to get Congress to approve nation-building aid, and a Wilson postscript declaring that America “fucked up the endgame.” Not good enough. With its chickenshit elisions, and despite the last-minute feint at reversing its celebratory Cold Warrior tone, Charlie Wilson’s War is Gumped-up history.