One Damn Fun War

All aboard the '80s way-back machine for Mike Nichols' good-time Charlie.

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Afghanistan Tom Hanks Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Aaron Sorkin. Based on the book by George Crile. Starring Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julia Roberts. 93 minutes. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Hell of a thing, getting Mike Nichols to adapt the story of Charlie Wilson, the Texas congressman who damned near single-handedly helped the Afghans kick out the Russians in the 1980s. Says right there in George Crile's 2003 book Charlie Wilson's War that Wilson "flaunted" his brief relationship with Diane Sawyer back in 1980. This was about eight years before Sawyer married Mike Nichols — who has now made a movie about how his wife's ex more or less put an end to the Cold War without anyone really noticing.

Seems par for the course with this story, in which everybody knows somebody who can do something to shape the course of something. You've got a liberal Bible Belt Congressman who loves booze and beaver; a CIA man looking to put the wood to the Russkies; Egyptian, Israeli, and Pakistani officials brokering arms deals over belly-dancing distractions; Playboy Playmates soaking in hot tubs; then-U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani sniffing at the congressional coke sniffers; and assorted other misfits trying to keep secret the biggest covert war ever conducted by the U.S. of A.

Nichols, directing Aaron Sorkin's screenplay based on Crile's exhaustive book, certainly gets the tone right: The big-screen Charlie Wilson's War, clocking in at 93 fly-by minutes, is dark and funny and mean and sexy, damned near pitch-black perfect, considering that at the end of this boozy comedy you wind up with, oh, Osama bin Laden. This is Mike Nichols of Catch-22, The Graduate, and Primary Colors (which is to say, the satirist), not the Mike Nichols of Working Girl, Postcards From the Edge, and Regarding Henry (which is to say, the moralist).

Wilson, played by Tom Hanks, is Nichols' kind of hero: screwed up beyond belief, but not beyond redemption. In the movie, Wilson's the "pussyhound" (as Molly Ivins called him) who drinks Scotch on the Hill during working hours, keeps a staff of beautiful women collectively known as "Charlie's Angels," and more than likely enjoys cocaine in the company of strippers — to which Nichols and Sorkin say, "So what?" The way they depict it, a man could have just as good a time getting laid as saving a country; it's just a different kind of explosion, that's all.

Sorkin, the master at commingling the snarky with the sanctimonious, is the right man for the job too: After years of wandering a lonely West Wing, he's unleashed in the desert and the bedroom, with men and women far more interesting than his fictional president and fawning, yawning staffers. Charlie Wilson's story is right up Sorkin's dark alley (Hollywood's too); it's another dark comedy about our historical gaffes, punctuated by the oh-shit laugh — as in "Oh, shit, I can't believe we did that."

The punch line to Charlie Wilson's War is that after spending $1 billion on helping the Afghans liberate their country from the God-hatin' Russkies, we refused to pony up a lousy $1 million to rebuild their schools. Oh, shit, I can't believe we created the devil. Who needs writers? You can't make this oh-shit up.

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