Sunday, January 6, 2008

Reel To Reel: Charlie Wilson's War

How to fund a war under the table and win.

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ned Beatty
Rated: R
Red Flags: One Scene Of Nudity (including Hanks' bare derriere), Language, War Violence

Much of what happens in Washington happens outside of our vision, out of reach of the press or C-Span or blogs or otherwise. So it's entirely possible a Texas congressman could engineer the funding and weapons deals that helped Afghan rebels defeat the Soviets in the 1980's -- all under the table. But better, it actually happened.

Charlie Wilson's War is based upon the book by former 60 Minutes producer George Crile, who chronicled how the hard-drinking and womanizing Rep. Charlie Wilson pulled off one of the most successful covert operations in history. It's a ode to logrolling and influence peddling used for something other than a highway in Alaska. At the same time, it's a political thriller unmasking Washington's systemic inaction and hypocrisy.

Wilson (Hanks) learns of Afghanistan's failing resistance from a Dan Rather report -- while sitting in a Las Vegas hotel jacuzzi surrounded by nude women and cocaine. He isn't shy about his boozing or skirt-chasing. Curvy assistants keep his office running, and he's quick to offer a drink to anybody who stops by. Yet behind the good-ol'-Texas-boy front is a leader with incredible power and influence as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. The position enables him to ask for get more funding for covert CIA operations with little resistance.

Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Roberts) uses her charm to prod Wilson to visit Afghanistan after hearing how he doubled some intelligence funding with just a few words. She's the kind of woman you admire and detest in the same sentence. Herring reeks of rich like someone on Dynasty but at least she's not spending it on a tummy tuck. Wilson is dismayed to find diplomats unwilling to give the Afghans more than just chump change, old weapons and lip service. He teams up with Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), a chain-smoking CIA pariah aching to get something done and escape the agency's bureaucratic sludge. Together they weave the tangled and secret web of alliances and funding to put rocket launchers into the hands of the Afghan rebels and turned the tide.

Charlie Wilson's War is a breezy Washington fable with comic edge, thanks in large part to the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing. We hear references to former House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill and then-prosecutor Rudy Giuliani. Still, people who don't go for political thrillers will like this film because of its economy and avoidance of excess Washington-isms. Yes, Sorkin's a liberal. And yes, I have heard conservatives grumble that Wilson is getting too much credit for bringing about the end of the Cold War. Yet Wilson himself admits that, saying "they made me a little better than I am." And somebody remind conservatives -- as if you need to -- that it wasn't Wilson who got the Soviets in a nuclear arms race.

Like the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, the film pulls out before the liberated country falls under control of the Taliban, paving the way for Al-Qaida and 9/11. We see Wilson in one scene trying to win the peace, but he is left to offer us only an expletive-laced quote summarizing what happened -- The End. The aftermath of Charlie Wilson's War is the topic for another movie at another time, if Hollywood is willing to make it. Judging from the box office performance of Lions For Lambs, it won't be soon.

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