"Charlie Wilson's War" attempts to walk the razor wire between comedy and drama. Good-time Charlie (Hanks) trades playful barbs - in the bathtub and the bedroom - with Houston socialite Joanne Herring (a stiff Julia Roberts) as though in a screwball comic romp. The politically savvy pretty woman wants the U.S. to provide arms to the Afghans fighting invading Soviet forces. She sets Charlie off on a serious mission that will become his crusade.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's snappy dialogue veers the dramedy more into the halls of "West Wing" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" than into George Crile's gripping 2003 report of the secret war that changed history.
During the Reagan era, the relatively unknown Texan politician partnered with a rogue CIA agent to launch a covert operation that funded the mujahideen rebels against the Red Army and helped the Afghans topple a superpower. By clearly positioning Wilson as a hero and provoking laughter through good banter, the movie never addresses the pressing questions raised in Crile's nonfiction page-turner. It also never encourages the viewer to consider that a solitary congressman appropriated more than $40 million of taxpayer money for his cause.
The movie lionizes rather than criticizes the fact that two mavericks hijacked American foreign policy. The film's satiric edge never cuts to the heart of the matter: Charlie Wilson headed an extra-government conspiracy. For this, he deserves CIA honors and our admiration?
Although Hanks and Roberts are often unconvincing in their roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman owns the part of the CIA loose cannon and Wilson co-conspirator Gust Avrakotos. His booming voice and screen-filling presence create a vivid character in seconds. Angry at the Agency and clever in clandestine ways, Avarakotos aids Wilson in brokering a deal between an Israeli arms dealer and the leader of Pakistan to deliver weaponry to the "freedom fighters."
Without implicating Wilson in wrongdoing, the ending spins the stranger-than-fiction true story as a cautionary tale. The Soviet Union fell, and the Cold War melted. But Charlie Wilson helped arm an Islamic group that later turned those weapons against us. Nichols' celebration of Wilson's secret war sweetens an irony that should taste of cold metal.