Set in the '80s of Ronald Reagan's attacks on the Soviet 'Evil Empire," Charlie Wilson's War is the story of how one wily congressman figured out a way to push the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. Wilson is played with great wry humor by Tom Hanks in what should become another signature role in his distinguished career. Representing the Second Congressional District in Texas, Wilson is an old-fashioned log-rolling pol who recalls Dashiell Hammett's Nick Charles, tipsy and flaky but always on his game. Wilson is a hard-drinking, inveterate womanizer with no false apologies for what he isn't ashamed of. His congressional office is staffed by whip-smart beauties he calls 'Charlie's Angels" led by a dark-haired speech writer he refers to only as 'Jail Bait." They are undeniably eye candy, but they're also up to the job.
Wilson's chief assistant is another beautiful woman, Bonnie Bach (Amy Adams), who knows what others may not realize: that behind her boss's playboy image is a skilled lawmaker with a big heart. Houston socialite and political activist Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) sees Wilson the same way. And not afraid to employ the allure of pillow talk, she gets Charlie involved in a plot to provide clandestine support for the Afghan rebels fighting against the Soviet invasion that began in 1979 and ground on for most of a decade. Rich in the favor bank, Wilson begins to cash IOUs so he can increase American funding for the Afghans from a paltry $5 million. By the time he's completed his wheeling and dealing, Wilson has increased that amount 100 fold and convinced the Saudis to match it dollar for dollar to a cool billion a year.
And there's more. With paired nuclear arsenals and mutually assured destruction a continuing reality, the U.S. couldn't afford to go at the Soviets directly. So all the rocket-powered grenades and shoulder-fired missiles that Wilson buys for the Afghans have to be delivered through third parties. In this complicated scheme, he's aided by maverick CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who sets him up with shady agents in Israel, Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world. That they could conceivably succeed seems preposterous, a wild stretch if depicted in a James Bond movie. Only they did.
It's the picture's conceit that Wilson is able to accomplish all this because no one takes him seriously. He's just a lush and a letch, but he's so likable no one wants to tell him no. And with shades of Monica-gate which awaits in the decade to come, when Wilson gets in trouble it's over allegations about drug use and his consorting with prostitutes, not over orchestrating unauthorized foreign policy out of his hip pocket.
Sorkin and Nichols keep the touch light on this obviously heavy material. But there's a telling scene near the beginning as Wilson is lounging in a Vegas hot tub with assorted lowlifes. He's got his fist around a cocktail glass and his arm around a naked bimbo, but he's glued to Dan Rather's television report on the Soviet invasion. Wilson likes his fun, but he's always got his eyes on important matters.
Regrettably, because the filmmakers want to entertain, they give only late and glancing attention to what followed Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. We see Wilson unsuccessfully trying to convince his congressional colleagues to provide funding for Afghan roads, schools and hospitals. Money to kill Russians " OK. Money to provide hope in a devastated land " yawn. Students of recent world history know that our failure to follow through in Afghanistan fueled the rise of the Taliban who provided refuge for Al Qaida. And that led to 9/11, which, given President Bush's allegations about a (never proven) connection between Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein, in turn, led to the appalling quagmire in Iraq. But the picture doesn't go there, and that's very much not to its credit.