Ahh, for the good old days of the 1980s - the Cold War, Grenada, the magic of Reaganomics. Life was simpler, spirits higher, everyone walked with a jauntier step.
Or so it seems, anyway, in Charlie Wilson's War, Mike Nichols' fleet-footed look back at the Washington of the Carter and Reagan years, and to the true-life political shenanigans of one Charles Nesbitt Wilson (Tom Hanks), a Texas congressman who orchestrated one of the largest covert operations in U.S. history - funding rebel fighters in their quest to send the Soviet Army packing from Afghanistan.
A party-hardy bachelor whose congressional staff looked like they just popped over from Hef's mansion, Wilson used his position on two key House subcommittees (defense and intelligence) to boost the CIA budget for arms and training for the mujaheddin guerrillas in the Soviet-Afghan war.
He did this, say Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (using the book by George Crile), pretty much unbeknownst to his colleagues in Congress. Starting with a paltry few million easily hidden in "black appropriations," Wilson, through the '80s, boosted his secret budget to $300 million - enough to pay for state-of-the-art rocket launchers able to shoot down Soviet helicopters.
Charlie Wilson's War tells its tale briskly, almost merrily. This is not a sober history lesson, but a political comedy laced with sex (party girls in limos, strippers in hot tubs), booze, and even good old-fashioned cocaine. Hanks, sporting a Texas twang and some kind of pre-John Edwards haircut, swirls his Scotch, yanks his suspenders, and sails smoothly through the back-room horse-trading and Pentagon hugger-mugger.
Capping a pretty impressive movie year, Philip Seymour Hoffman (see him in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, see him in The Savages) chews the scenery, the screenplay and then some as Gust Avrakotos, the CIA's Afghan desk guy - and a profane nutball is he. It's a small role with a couple of big speeches, and Hoffman makes the most of 'em.
Julia Roberts, likewise, shines as a Houston society swell whose improbable - and amorous - alliance with Wilson served them both well. And served the Afghan rebels even better.
Like Sorkin's D.C.-set TV series, West Wing, his script for Charlie Wilson's War is full of rapid-fire badinage, with movers and shakers moving smart and shaking snappy as a squad of aides trot along behind, briefcases and coffee cups in tow. A decade - not to mention a war - never went by so quickly.
Charlie Wilson's War *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Mike Nichols. With Amy Adams, Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, drugs, profanity, nudity, violence, adult themes)
Playing at: Area theaters