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Charlie Wilson’s War

Sporadically Compelling Comedy-Drama

Charlie Wilson's War, Aaron Sorkin's (The West Wing, The American President) seriocomic adaptation of George Crile’s 2003 non-fiction bestseller and directed by Mike Nichols (Closer, Wit, The Graduate), explores a little known episode in recent American history: the covert funding by the United States of the “mujahideen", the Afghan “holy warriors” who eventually defeated the Soviet Union after nearly a decade of guerilla warfare.

Charlie Wilson, a little known Democratic Congressman from Texas and longtime member of the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, headed up a clandestine effort involving hundreds of millions of dollars and an unlikely alliance between Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, to funnel material resources into Afghanistan.

Charlie Wilson's War opens in 1980, with Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a boozing, schmoozing womanizer enjoying the questionable company of two strippers, a Playboy centerfold model, and a conman pretending to be a businessman in Las Vegas. As much as Wilson revels in hedonistic pursuits, a "60 Minutes" report redirects his attention to the recently invaded Afghanistan. After returning to Washington, D.C., Wilson looks into expanding funding for the mujahideen, but it’s not until he receives a phone call from a born-again, staunch anti-communist Houston socialite (and occasional lover), Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), that the future of Afghanistan becomes more than a passing interest. Herring coordinates a meeting between Wilson and the president of Pakistan and a tour of an Afghan refugee camp.

Moved by what he sees, Wilson springs into action, dedicating himself to freeing Afghanistan from Soviet rule by supporting the mujahideen’s efforts, but doing so covertly to ensure ever-necessary plausible deniability. Wilson obtains funding through his subcommittee, but delivering weapons to the mujahideen proves a more difficult proposition.

Even with the reluctant aid of the Pakistani government, an Israeli arms dealer, and an Egyptian weapons manufacturer, Wilson needs help from the intelligence community to complete his plan. Wilson taps a disgruntled CIA case officer with a bad attitude and a rapier wit, Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to head up the effort to defeat the Soviets on the ground and in the air.

By turns ribald, raunchy, serious, and satirical, Nichols and Sorkin try hard, probably too hard to make Charlie Wilson's War both light entertainment and a thought-provoking primer on foreign policy and American history. It’s definitely entertaining, at least early on, before Wilson’s transformation into a world-weary, soul-distraught character obsessed with playing savior to the Afghans. Despite an underwritten role that over-relies on static shots of a bleary-eyed Wilson looking thoughtful to convey his inner turmoil, Hanks handles his character’s inner change credibly, but it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman's turn as the rumpled, profane Avrakotos that proves to be nothing less than riveting. Hoffman tears off each line of Sorkin’s dialogue with the fierce, self-righteous rage of the unjustly passed over.

Ultimately, it’s the prophetic Avrakotos who convinces Wilson that abandoning Afghanistan after the Soviets leave isn’t good foreign policy. As we know, however, the United States did, indeed, abandon Afghanistan, a decision that resulted in the rise of the Taliban who, in turn, provided Al-Qaeda with a safe haven and training ground from which to stage their attacks on the United States. Afghanistan proved to be a textbook example of “blowback,” the concept that foreign policy decisions guided by moral relativism and political expediency will lead to unintended consequences, all or most of them contrary to the national interest.

Nichol and Sorkin suggest that a foreign policy defined by the principle that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” (a.k.a. realpolitik) is almost always going to end badly. Alas, it’s a lesson the United States learned at a high price. It’s also a lesson Charlie Wilson's War alludes to in an all-too-brief, unsatisfying coda.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars