Moolah for Mullahs
Hell of a thing, getting Mike Nichols to adapt the yer-kiddin'-me story of Charlie Wilson, the congressman from Lufkin, Texas, who damn near single-handedly helped the Afghans kick out the Russians in the 1980s. Says right there on page 11 of the paperback edition of George Crile's 2003 book Charlie Wilson's War that Wilson "flaunted" his brief relationship with a network newcomer named Diane Sawyer back in 1980. She calls him "tall and gangly and wild," possessing an "ungoverned enthusiasm" that "extended to women and the world," how-dee-doo. This was about eight years before Sawyer married Mike Nichols — who has now made a movie about how his wife's ex more or less put an end to the Cold War without anyone really noticing.
Seems about par for the course with this story, in which everybody knows somebody who can do something to shape the course of something goin' on in the wide, wide world of sports, politically speaking. You've got a liberal congressman from the Bible Belt who loves him some booze and beaver; a mighty beautiful Houston socialite who counted among her many exes an oil man connected to sheiks and intelligence-community power brokers; a disheveled, disgruntled CIA man looking to put the wood to the Ruskies; Egyptian, Israeli, and Pakistani officials brokering arms deals over belly-dancing distractions; Playboy Playmates soaking in hot tubs; then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani sniffing at the congressional coke sniffers; and assorted other do-gooders and up-to-no-gooders trying to keep secret the biggest covert war ever conducted by the good ol' U.S. of A.
Nichols, directing Aaron Sorkin's screenplay based on the late 60 Minutes producer's exhaustive book, certainly gets the tone right: The big-screen Charlie Wilson's War, clocking in at 93 fly-by minutes, is dark and funny and mean and sexy, damn near pitch-black perfect, considering that at the end of this boozy comedy you wind up with, oh, Osama bin Laden. And Nichols is suited to the tale — this being the Mike Nichols of Catch-22, The Graduate, and Primary Colors (which is to say, the satirist), not the Mike Nichols of Working Girl, Postcards from the Edge, and Regarding Henry (which is to say, the moralist).
Wilson, played by Tom Hanks with an accent a little more Suth'n than Texan, is Nichols's kind of hero: fucked up beyond belief, but not beyond redemption. In the movie, as in life, Wilson is the "pussyhound" (as Molly Ivins called him) who drinks Scotch on the Hill during working hours, keeps a staff of beautiful women collectively known as "Charlie's Angels," and more than likely enjoys cocaine in the company of strippers — to which Nichols and Sorkin say, "So what?" The way they depict it, a man could have just as good a time getting laid as saving a country; it's just a different kind of explosion, that's all. They don't judge. They admire.
And whispering sweet somethings in Wilson's ear is his better half in this adventure: Joanne Herring, who's smitten with the cause of the Mujahideen in need of U.S. military might and moolah. Herring, a Minutewoman who once married an actual baron, was as much the actress as the woman portraying her (Julia Roberts). As Crile points out, she, too, was all about reinvention — from lil' ol' nobody to Houston TV talk-show host to a dear, dear friend of Pakistan's President Zia ul-Haq. She's more than happy to share bed, bath, and beyond with Charlie if he'll shoot a few million toward the freedom fighters in Afghanistan — saving those people, well, it's the role of a lifetime.
And then there's the third member of their love triangle: CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, the only man with whom Wilson could have pulled off his billion-dollar war. Avrakotos was a bored, disaffected "rogue" agent for whom killing Russians was a right, not a privilege, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is a dead ringer for the chain-smoking skirt-chaser. Avrakotos and Wilson are brothers from another mother. Add Herring to this and you've got one outrageous unholy trinity.
Sorkin, the master at commingling the snarky with the sanctimonious, is the right man for the job, too: After years of wandering a lonely West Wing, he's unleashed in the desert and the bedroom with men and women far more interesting than his fictional president and fawning, yawning staffers. Charlie Wilson's story is right up Sorkin's dark alley (Hollywood's too), for it's another dark comedy about our historical gaffes, punctuated by the oh-shit laugh — as in, "Oh, shit, I can't believe we did that." (Catch-22 and M*A*S*H are the forebears of the genre, from which we have sneering offspring such as Three Kings, Buffalo Soldiers, Lord of War, and 2006's The Situation.)
The punch line to Charlie Wilson's War is that after spending $1 billion on helping the Afghans liberate their country from the God-hatin' Ruskies, we refused to pony up a lousy $1 million to rebuild their schools. Oh, shit, I can't believe we created the Devil. Who needs writers? You can't make this oh-shit up.
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