For Charlie Wilson, War Is Swell

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Francois Duhamel / Universal

Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson's War

Possible right-wing fantasy about Hollywood: A year ago, the lockstep liberals who run the movie studios received a directive from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, ordering them to finally make some films about the Iraq-Afghanistan catastrophe. The moguls dutifully complied, bankrolling top directors and Oscar-winning stars to make serious, worthy films eviscerating the Bush Administration's war policy.

The laugh, for the right wing, is that nobody went to see these movies. In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, Redacted — together, in their entire theatrical runs, they earned only about what Will Smith's I Am Legend did on one day last weekend. Even if you throw in Jamie Foxx's Saudi Arabia-set action epic The Kingdom, the total box office take of the war-on-terror films doesn't match the earnings of, say, Fahrenheit 9/11.

Okay, there was no Democrat politburo instructing Hollywood to make anti-war movies — at least, not that I know of. And not every showbiz liberal agreed that the jihadist insurgency should be indicated with a finger that was wagging, pointing or raised. Some of them — Tom Hanks, writer Aaron Sorkin, director Mike Nichols — thought they should do what they do best: turn it all into comedy. The result, Charlie Wilson's War, is that seemingly impossible object these days: a picture about war and politics that has manages to be both rational and inspirational. It is also the year's funniest smart movie.

Based on a nonfiction book by George Crile, a former producer for 60 Minutes, the film follows the quixotic quest of a hard-drinking, oft-screwing Texas Congressman (Hanks) to get funding for antiaircraft weapons so that Afghani rebels can defeat their Soviet invaders. This was back in the 1980s, before the mujahedeen had flowered into the Taliban and backed Osama bin Laden's war against the U.S. (A postscript to the movie quotes Wilson as saying, "We f---ed up the endgame.")

But the movie judiciously concentrates on Wilson's maneuvering, two decades ago, through a political landscape, in Washington and abroad, that was more clearly defined — remote and relatively innocent, almost a fantasyland. (Consider this: Charlie is a liberal Democrat from Texas.) In focusing on the man as much as the movement, on the process of achieving a goal more than the goal itself, Charlie Wilson's War gets to celebrate an all-American hybrid: wheeler-dealer idealism.

Good-time Charlie Wilson makes deals in hot tubs surrounded by naked prostitutes. The age, pulchritude and dress code of the all-girl staff in his Washington office show that he believes more in cleavage than in cloture. Hanks' portrayal of this genial, grasping, philandering Texas charmer owes a lot to Larry Hagman's J.R. Ewing from Dallas — a man who took so much pleasure in screwing people, and did it with so much con-artistry, that they often enjoyed it too. That's the secret of a successful politician: If you manipulate Them (the voters, the lobbyists, your colleagues) suavely enough, they'll think they're getting massaged. On TV, of course, J.R. was a villain, the snake with a smile. Charlie, dipping into the same bag of tricks, is a hero.

His business in Congress is to funnel money, jobs and programs to his constituents, not to some ragtag guerrillas in a country no one cares about. But when he hears that the mujahedeen have a chance to evict the Russkies if only they're properly armed, he gets religion. He's a man with a mission: get the money to get the arms to Afghanistan.

Unlike some who are born-again, Charlie doesn't discard his old ways. He's attracted to this unlikely, maybe undoable scheme in part because it requires his own special skill set, and in part because — as Charles Foster Kane said about running a newspaper — Charlie thinks it would be fun to bankroll a counterinsurgency. In the cheerful bravado of a can-do Texan, he thinks: Hell, why not? When Charlie masterminds it, war is swell.

All the wily strategies Charlie had used for filling the pork barrel, he now exercises in his sacred cause. Among his co-conspirators are one of his mistresses, a Houston doyenne named Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and a scuzzy, belligerent, occasionally brilliant CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Charlie also plays the Israelis and Egyptians against each other, to get them to work together. He tries working his seductive powers on Pakistan's President Zia (Om Puri). In Congress he trades votes and cashes in favors. Essentially, he treats the Afghan war as one big earmark. He makes American generosity seem the coolest game in town — the Peace Corps reimagined as summer camp.

Indeed, the whole movie revels in politics as a game, one worth playing well and enjoying. As Hoffman says, "If you're gonna do this, you might as well have fun with it." No question that the filmmakers and stars are on the top of their game. Hoffman reminds us that, along with his weird and salutary ability to burrow into any character, he is a great line-reader — a crucial asset to a script with the welter of exposition that Sorkin's has (along with many big laughs and even more subversive ones). Roberts gets to parade her luster in evening gowns and bikinis; she amps up the cunning warmth, and we note only in passing that in early middle-age she's starting to frost over into Glenn Close. Hanks, liberated from playing anguished do-gooders, unlocks a lot of raffish energy and gets that famous whine out of his voice. He makes Charlie a larger-than-life, conniving, lascivious ... all right, do-gooder, but one you wouldn't mind sharing a drink or a hot tub with.

Nichols moves this along with the easy assurance of someone who's being doing it, and doing it well, for ages — The Graduate was released 40 years ago today — yet hasn't lost his stroke or his speed. Those deft directorial touches, and the intelligence the movie both exudes and assumes from its audience, put Charlie Wilson's War up there with Hollywood's grand old comedies: the Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder movies about slick schemers and their slicker women. The Nichols-Sorkin film is so much fun, you will not only forget all of Hollywood's serioso war movies, you may forget the international calamities that Wilson's largesse indirectly led to.

One last similarity Nichols' film has to the screwball classics: if you don't stay for all the closing credits, you're in and out of Charlie Wilson's War in an hour and a half.