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Charlie Wilson’s War: Eye-Opening Entertainment

Note: I asked GiggleSugar to go to write up this review, and she graciously agreed. Thanks, Giggle!

Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a Texas Congressman who drinks whisky in the morning, whose single notable legislative achievement is having been re-elected five times, and who hires only sexy young women as aides. “You can teach ‘em to type,” his secretary quotes him as saying, “but you can’t teach ‘em to grow tits.”

Yet we see him in a flash forward at the beginning of Charlie Wilson’s War receiving an unusual military honor for playing a part in helping to end the Cold War between the Soviets and the US. How do we reconcile the ne’er-do-well Charlie with the unlikely hero Charlie?

Based on a true story and adapted from a book by George Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War is a smart and fast-paced comedy written by Aaron Sorkin (West Wing) and directed by Mike Nichols that seeks not only to answer the question of Charlie’s transformation but also to explain the complicated history of the U.S.’s often covert involvement in global affairs. It does this in an engaging way by focusing on the flawed people who turn the wheels of history. The film manages a difficult balancing act: it is informative without being boring, entertaining without being trivial, and political without being partisan. To see more what I mean,

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In an opening scene, Charlie Wilson, a Texas Congressman who is on the war appropriations subcommittee, is hanging out in a hot tub with a few naked strippers and a sleazy-looking guy who’s trying to sell him on financing a movie starring his Playboy centerfold girlfriend. Instead of being fixated on the broads, booze and blow that surround him, Charlie continues to be distracted by a news program with Dan Rather interviewing Afghan soldiers. Charlie tries to get some dialogue going with his riffraff pals, but nobody seems interested in Afghanistan or even knows where it is.

Back in Washington, Charlie’s interest in the Afghan cause deepens. Like other Americans who are watching the news, he only knows the basics. Afghanistan is being repeatedly invaded and pummeled by the Soviet army, and against their modern tanks and missiles, the Afghans only have outmoded guns. In addition to the danger that the Soviets will continue their “commie” expansion, the human cost of Afghan lives (particularly women and children) affects the Congressman. His goal is to raise more funds in order to arm the Afghan mujahadeen ("fighters") with modern weapons so that they can shoot down the Soviet helicopters that menace them.

Throughout the course of the film, Charlie enlists the aid of a wealthy socialite, the brittle and powerful Joanne (Julia Roberts), a born-again Christian who is passionate about freedom of religion for the Afghans and who holds fundraisers for their cause. (Somehow, she also knows the President of Pakistan and arranges for Charlie to meet him.) He also gets help from a burnt-out CIA operative Gust Avrakatos (played by a hilarious Philip Seymour Hoffman) who clues Charlie in on how little the U.S. is doing to covertly aid the Afghan army.

With effective — if at times caricatured — performances from its actors, crisp and witty dialogue, and a bittersweet ending that makes the viewer see there’s a gray area between winning and losing a war, Charlie Wilson’s War is infotainment at its finest.

To see the trailer and more clips from Charlie Wilson's War, check out movies.ivillage.com.

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