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Philip S. Hoffman wins 'Wilson's War'

Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts suffer emotional standoff in OK Nichols/Sorkin film

There was a time, not so long ago, when a Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts pairing would have shaken the multiplex and caused Mary Hart to wet her pants.

And while there's nothing really wrong with their work in "Charlie Wilson's War," it's true that you find yourself waiting, a little impatiently, until Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his next appearance.

It's not like Hoffman's competing in some kind of act-off - my Oscar's newer than yours, Hanks! - it's just that he's so good here, playing a CIA man who's working around upper echelon incompetence to help Afghan rebels expel the Soviets in the 1980s.

He plays agent Gust Avrakotos, and you may have noticed that the movie isn't called "Gust Avrakotos' War." It's built around Hanks as Congressman Charlie Wilson, the sort of colorful Texan who might (and did) say that the women in his office are beautiful because while you can teach a gal to type, you can't teach her to grow boobs.

Good Time Charlie loves hot-tubs, strippers, Chivas, freedom and America. He's low-profile in D.C., but he holds more brains, more strategic committee power and more IOUs than almost anyone in town.

And he wants to use his power for what he considers good. He's happily dunked in a jacuzzi when he sees a Dan Rather report about overmatched mujahadeen in Afghanistan, and wonders why the U.S. isn't doing more to defeat the occupying Soviets.

So he makes a few inquiries and finds that almost no one in the political/intelligence community is interested. These scenes establish Wilson as a man apart in business-as-usual Washington politics, and he finds an intelligence-community soulmate in Gust.

Gust's competence and smarts have made him an outcast in the bureaucrat-infested CIA, and he's shunted to the black hole of the Afghan desk just as Wilson makes Afghanistan the focus of his one-man jihad (though why he has to sneak this past the anti-communist Reagan administration is unexplained).

Together, they expand the Afghan budget from $5 million to $1 billion, with help from the Saudis, Pakistanis and the Israelis - partners and frontmen in a ritualized/diplomacized proxy war that the United States must conduct in order to avoid a real war with the Soviets. (The movie is based largely on fact, and its peek into realpolitik is instructive).

Back in the states, Charlie recruits activists and big money donors - chief among them an attractive Houston socialite (Roberts), who provides a love interest here for Hanks.

There's meant to be an emotional component to this romance - Wilson finally falls for someone as charismatic and quietly powerful as himself, but there's something missing, and the relationship feels half-formed.

In fact, the movie often feels truncated and choppy, like big chunks are missing. I often had the nagging feeling that Hanks and Roberts hadn't quite settled into these roles - big stars playing dress-up.

And the movie, while funny and clever, worries that it's too smart for its audience. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has the TV writer's weakness for underlining, as if he fears somebody went to the kitchen and missed something. He does a great job, for instance, creating a screwball scene that finds Wilson dodging involvement in a cocaine scandal while trying to nail down financing for his massive, secret war on the Soviets.

We get the point. The press is distracted by petty scandals and misses the big picture. But Sorkin can't leave well enough alone. A few minutes later, he reiterates the idea as a monologue and a punchline, and we feel preached to.

Still, that's too much complaining for a movie that is so often breezy and entertaining, and offers so much of Hoffman, an actor at the top of his game. *

Produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, directed by Mike Nichols, written by Aaron Sorkin, music by James Newton Howard, distributed by Universal Pictures.