Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War

By David Luhrssen
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Although no one noticed at the time, the world was changed one night in 1980. The geopolitical balance began to shift when Charles Wilson, a wily if undistinguished Congressman from Texas, looked up from his hot tub in a Las Vegas suite, where he was surrounded by the pleasant company of strippers, Playboy bunnies and blow, and saw Dan Rather on TV wearing a turban and a beard.

The unfamiliar appearance of this familiar newsman aroused his interest. While on trek across Afghanistan for “60 Minutes,” Rather made the case that Afghans fighting against Soviet occupiers were in need of American aid. As Wilson gazed at the grainy CBS footage, he began to see his future and the future of the world. He would provide weapons for the Muslim warriors of distant Afghanistan. He, Charlie Wilson, would transform the Afghan hills into another Vietnam, this time with the Communists stuck in the quagmire.

Directed by Mike Nichols (Primary Colors) and written by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing” ), CharlieWilson’s War would be farcical if it weren’t close to the truth. Charlie Wilson’s War archly transforms the news reporting of its source, the best-selling account by award-winning journalist (and “60 Minutes” producer) George Crile, into a ripping good story. It stars Tom Hanks in the title role, lathering on the greasy Texas charm like sweet barbeque sauce at an Independence Day cookout. Sorkin fashions Crile’s book into a memorable tale of American power politics filled with believably larger-than-life characters. After all, Wilson and his crusading millionaire accomplice, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), came from Texas, a state where everything is a little too large, starting with the sky overhead.

With the plight of the Afghans in the news media, the boozing, womanizing ne’er do well Congressman finally had a cause to believe in. Sitting on key committees, Wilson manipulated the secret and virtually bottomless budget for the CIA through horse trading and schmoozing. Between Herring’s contacts in Pakistan and his friendship with Jewish American groups, Wilson helped forge a covert alliance involving Israel, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in common cause against the Soviet Union, a hollow behemoth that nonetheless appeared to be rolling forward in its bid for global influence. The Soviets were brutal occupiers of Afghanistan. Wilson’s coalition helped the natives fight back and eventually drive out the invader.

The movie’s sexiest parts concern the kanoodling late night sessions between Wilson and Herring, a right wing socialite straight out of “Dallas” who claimed George Washington on her family tree. The man who made their scheme work, however, was an irascible CIA agent of Greek descent, Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Sparring with his WASP overseers who sniffed that he was “barely American,” Avrakotos was blunt spoken and clear eyed, dropping Eastern aphorisms into his reports on which missiles were best for downing Soviet helicopters and piercing the armor of their tanks. Hoffman infuses this potentially wonky character with the idiosyncrasy of great character acting. When the Soviets finally pulled out, Avrakotos worried that without a massive reconstruction program, Afghanistan would fall into the hands of “the crazies.” Congratulating itself on the trouble it caused for the USSR, the U.S. government wasn’t listening.

In a year of mostly down-market commercial movies and art house films with little resonance beyond their niches, Charlie Wilson’s War may prove to be a godsend—a much-anticipated movie worthy of winning the Best Picture Oscar. It may also provide its star with a nomination for Best Actor. Hanks appears effortless as he recreates a slightly tipsy, back-slapping Texas Congressman who, by quietly bankrupting the Soviet Union by increasing the cost of their Afghan adventure, helped end the Cold War but laid the foundation for 9-11.

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