From history's "stranger than fiction" file comes Charlie Wilson's War, the true story of how a little-known playboy congressman from Texas almost single-handedly engineered Afghanistan's defeat of the Soviet army, turning the tide of the Cold War against the Evil Empire for good. A bit of an exaggeration, you say? Perhaps -- but Mike Nichols' superbly entertaining account can be forgiven for overstating its subject's historical significance for the sake of good drama -- and even better comedy.
Indeed, that Charlie Wilson's War is one of the funniest movies of the year is one of the foremost pleasant surprises of the so-called "Awards Season" -- and a testament to Aaron Sorkin's lively script, which plays like an irreverent, R-rated version of The West Wing.
After a mild slump, Tom Hanks triumphantly returns to form in the title role as the swaggering, scotch-swilling architect of a covert scheme to funnel aid to Afghan rebels. And while Julia Roberts provides a fine foil as Wilson's canny political ally/occasional lover Joanne Herring, it's Philip Seymour Hoffman who proves Hanks' most able on-screen partner as the rumpled, gleefully potty-mouthed CIA operative Gust Avrakotos. Hoffman and Hanks are a joy to watch as they light up the screen with their witty, rapid-fire exchanges.
It's not all fun and games, of course. The business of running a covert war is serious stuff, and for the most part Nichols transitions between comedy and tragedy flawlessly. At times, however, attempts to relate the events of Charlie Wilson's War to our current geopolitical milieu, replete with several moments foreshadowing the rise of religious conflicts, feel forced and unnecessary. After all, the consequences of alliances formed throughout the Cold War are plainly evident to anyone who's caught a glimpse of CNN over the last decade. We don't need a sermon from Sorkin to remind us of the historical irony Nichols' camera has already abundantly displayed: that the very people we backed would soon grow to hate us.
What the story could have used is more information about Roberts' character. The splendid screwball comedy dynamic between Herring and Wilson ends abruptly -- and awkwardly -- toward the end of the second act with the out-of-left-field revelation that Herring has remarried. Wilson winces and tears up at the news -- a puzzling response for a man who seemingly viewed the headstrong socialite as little more than a high-class booty call.
The pacing certainly wouldn't have suffered for it. Charlie Wilson's War clocks in at a brisk 97 minutes and is consistently riveting throughout. While the real-life Charlie Wilson may not have single-handedly won the Cold War, his exploits did provide fodder for one of the most enjoyable films of 2007 -- and that's no small feat.