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December 26, 2007 > Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War

By Mona Shah

Told in flashback, the film opens in 1989 as Charlie receives an award for his role in the defeat of Communism. Thankfully, that short scene is as close as this film ever gets to boring. "Charlie Wilson's War" is that rare Hollywood commodity these days: a smart, sophisticated entertainment for grownups. Based on the late George Crile's sensational bestseller, it is the true story of how a playboy congressman, a renegade CIA agent and a beautiful Houston socialite joined forces to lead the largest and most successful covert operation in history.

Crile's book revealed the full story of exploits little noticed when they happened; a story that once more proves truth can be stranger than fiction. Charlie Wilson was a liberal Democratic congressman from East Texas known as "Good Time Charlie" for his swinging-bachelor lifestyle. He had women everywhere and was a big-time boozer, but also possessed a strong knowledge of history and a keen interest in foreign affairs.

The film begins with Charlie (Tom Hanks) in a Las Vegas hot tub with three naked ladies and another guy; he soon has them all doing coke in a limo. Charlie's more licentious aspects are played down in favor of his bright and resourceful traits - a master operator who can talk to and get along with anyone.

Igniting Charlie's passion for helping the Afghans in the wake of the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion is Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a beautiful and connected power broker. She uses her intimacy with Charlie to convince him to do what Congress is unwilling to do...end the Cold War by helping ragtag Afghan holdouts defeat the Russians.

Joanne arranges for Charlie to meet Pakistan's President Zia (Om Puri) in Islamabad, where, despite a faux pas of asking for booze during his audience with a fundamentalist Muslim leader, the ball starts rolling. Charlie's resolve is hardened when he visits an Afghan refugee camp and observes the suffering of its occupants.

Many stages lead to the point where this good old boy is able to increase his government's unpublicized funding of the anti-Soviet jihad from $5 million to $1 billion per year. But the main objective is providing Mujahideen the weapons necessary to shoot down fearsome Russian helicopter gun-ships; in this endeavor, Charlie receives critical help from maverick CIA op Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Decked out with a pouffy '80s hairdo, moustache, protruding gut and ever-present smokes, Hoffman's Gust moves into a room and plants himself there. Whenever he's on, the picture vibrates with electricity.

Knowing Israel has a limitless stash of Soviet-made weapons, Gust arranges an unthinkable deal between the Jewish state and Islamic Pakistan. The deal is solidified when Charlie brings his own Texas belly dancer to perform for officials in Cairo.

Battling drug charges at home that threaten to send him to prison, Charlie uses his position on the Defense Appropriation Subcommittee to maneuver cash and kindle support for his cause. When Stinger missiles finally find their way to the Afghan rebels, the tide turns, leading to the Soviet retreat in 1989.

The pacing of "Charlie Wilson's War" is exceptional. The material provides much to think about and discuss afterward, but the tempo and balancing act achieved by the director and editors is perfect.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman steals every scene he's in. Hanks doesn't suggest a big, booming Texan, but nails his wit and political savvy. Julia Roberts is very good in the role of a rather eccentric Texas oil millionairess.

"Charlie Wilson's War" is a film that entertains, amuses as well as informs all in equal measure.

Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hr. 37 min.

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