Based on 60 Minutes producer George Crile’s 2003 book, Charlie Wilson’s War is a fast-food history lesson in the policy methods that Texas Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson used to arm and train Afghanistan’s Mujahideen army in order to defend against Russia in the early ‘80s. There’s barely a reversal or character arc to be had as the boozing and womanizing Charlie (Tom Hanks) aligns his golly-gee-we’ve-got-to-do-something politics with rich Texas socialite-bible-thumper Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts).
Philip Seymour Hoffman steals the movie with an outrageous introduction scene as CIA career loose cannon Gust Avrakotos. Director Mike Nichols clearly pines for the pre-AIDS days of sexual liberation when T&A was a requisite means of doing business and rubber-stamping foreign policy.
In place of a plot, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (writer of television’s West Wing) supplants a stylistic veneer of dialogue gloss so thick that Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are like giant fleshy insects encased in transparent amber. Their characters might bed down together in scenes that the filmmaker believes are provocative but the only bodily fluid flowing is greasepaint.
Tarantula Roberts embraces scorpion Hanks and we marvel at watching her remove clumps from her thick false lashes with a safety pin. Career bachelor Wilson might snort coke with numerous naked women in Vegas, but he’s the only man in government ready, willing and able to examine the Afghan resistance, which the U.S. is providing a paltry $5 million dollar a year donation.
Charlie gets an audience with Pakistan’s President Zia (Om Puri) only to have his dimwitted American ass handed to him for his predictable ignorance of their culture and territorial problems. But good ol’ Charlie is up for an escorted sojourn to an Afghan refugee camp where he sees first hand the effect of Russia’s landmines and helicopter attacks on Afghanistan’s women and child soldiers. Wilson takes up the people’s cause with a passion that’s so altruistic and naive that you’d think he was a kneejerk communist.
Once back on American soil, our savior to the Afghan people lucks into a working relationship with bottom-line CIA fixer Gust who shepherds through a deal for Israel to sell Russian-made rockets to their Muslim enemies since it would be unacceptable for American-manufactured arms to be used against the Russians. The contentious pact is inked after a campy scene wherein a lusty female friend of Charlie’s does a naughty belly dance for Egyptian diplomats.
The filmmakers have conspired to make a campy, satirical movie about the way American funded and trained the soldiers of Osama bin Laden. Every line is delivered with a wink and a nudge as if to exonerate our politician’s acts of stupid good will because American policies are committed with the same smirk that George W. Bush has made a permanent contortion.
There’s actually nothing funny about the way America has handled its foreign policy in the last 40 years. It’s fine to encourage its audience to root for Charlie Wilson’s success at moving the U.S. budget for Afghan assistance from $5 million to $1 billion a year, while neglecting to look at what that money could have done for the American people, but it’s not a convincing ploy.
Paying to surrender two hours of your life to watch Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts play debauched power brokers is an insult I would wish on my worst enemies just to keep them occupied. If there’s any message here, it’s one that anyone with common sense already knows: war is for suckers. MTW