My first reaction to Charlie Wilson's War (Universal), the new Mike Nichols comedy based on a 2003 nonfiction best seller by George Crile and adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin, was to heave a sigh of relief that it wasn't awful. That may be a low bar to set, but Nichols' 40-year directorial career has been like the report card of an unstable student who gets either A's or F's. With every movie, you hold your breath: Is this going to be a note-perfect satire (The Graduate) or a flailing excruciation (The Birdcage)?
As it turns out, the previous Nichols movie this one most resembles is the 1988 romantic comedy Working Girl. Charlie Wilson's War is a funny, sprightly tribute to the American can-do spirit, with a bleak ending that suggests that our plucky protagonist may have just dug his own (or, in this case, his country's) grave. This film does have glaring faults. Its storytelling verges on the slapdash, and its vision of politics as a game of personal brinksmanship can ring sentimental and shallow. But like its priapic hero, the movie charges forward with a lusty vitality that helps the viewer forgive it a multitude of sins.
Tom Hanks plays "Good Time" Charlie Wilson, a go-along-to-get-along Democratic congressman from a rural district in Texas. A hard-drinking womanizer with a sharp eye for foreign affairs, Charlie sits on the congressional committee responsible for funding covert military actions abroad. One debauched evening in 1980, soaking in a Vegas hot tub with a gaggle of coke-snorting strippers, he watches Dan Rather on TV covering the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Soon after, a fervently anti-Communist Houston socialite, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), invites Charlie to a fund-raiser for the cause of the mujahideen. The two skip out of the party for some (off-screen) Texas lovin', and by way of pillow talk, Joanne convinces Charlie to take a meeting she's arranged with the president of Pakistan, Zia ul-Haq (Om Puri).
Converted to the freedom fighters' cause—or maybe just in love with the idea of bringing down the Red Army on his own—Charlie mobilizes a clandestine campaign to funnel resources and weapons to the Afghan rebels. With one well-placed phone call, he manages to double the appropriations budget, but even $10 million is a paltry sum when it comes to shooting down Soviet helicopters.
Eventually, Charlie hooks up with Gust Avrokotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a CIA agent on the verge of being fired for his filthy mouth and foul temper. When Gust and Charlie meet just as a drug scandal is breaking in the congressman's office (a wonderfully staged scene, straight from a door-slamming sex farce), the two men realize that they're brothers under the skin, romantic pragmatists who get off on gaming the system for the sheer sport of it.
It's getting boring handing out compliments to Hoffman, who's given standout performances in three movies since October alone. But he nearly hijacks the movie as the graceless, hyperintelligent Gust. Hoffman and Hanks riff off each other with great chemistry and charm—hell, I'd sell these guys a grenade launcher if I had one. But the same can't be said of Hanks and Roberts. Julia looks sensational—a scene in a bikini will have you disbelieving that she ever gave birth to twins—but there's something synthetic, perhaps even a little condescending, about her portrait of a sex-loving, Commie-hating Southern matriarch. You're never really convinced that she believes in Jesus or the mujahideen, and it doesn't help that her character is by far the most underwritten of the big three. The smaller roles are better, and better cast: Ned Beatty as a softhearted senator, Amy Adams as Charlie's Girl Friday, and Emily Blunt as the leggy daughter of a favor-seeking constituent.
Because of the movie's rollicking pace—it's barely 97 minutes long—it's sometimes hard to distinguish Nichols' and Sorkin's real politics from the pieties they're trying to skewer. For the most part, they seem to share the main characters' conviction that "killing Russkies," at least in the context of the Afghan invasion, was an unalloyed good. A brief scene in which a piggish Russian pilot is shot down by newly armed Afghan villagers veers close to jingoism. The rare scenes of war on the ground in Afghanistan seem straight from a video game—civilians scattering as we watch them get picked off from a helicopter's-eye view. And a triumphant montage, in which music from Handel's Messiah plays as Soviet copters spin to the ground in flames, is surely meant to be ironic—so why does it feel so damn inspiring?
Charlie Wilson's War ends on a queasy note, as the congressman is celebrated for arming the very country that, 20 years later, would harbor some of our worst, and poorest, enemies. A few rushed scenes track Charlie's unsuccessful attempts to divert funds for post-Soviet reconstruction in Afghanistan, but that story line seems to bore Nichols as much as the talk of rebuilding schools bores congressmen. Final ironies aside, the movie's freewheeling, devil-may-care mood remains a symptom of the extent to which Reagan nostalgia has penetrated even the liberal mainstream. In Sorkin and Nichols' fantasy '80s, Republicans and Democrats can, literally, get in bed together for the greater good of the country, and covert wars fought by proxy can keep the bad guys out of our back yard, at least for a decade or two. Must've been nice.