Before the Osama Bin Laden, before the Taliban, Afghanistan was ground zero of the Cold War between democracy and communism. And it was in Afghanistan that communism was sent toppling, and the events that led to 9/11 were set in motion. Charlie Wilson’s War attempts to tackle those world changing events from the perspective of one particular, little known congressman named Charlie Wilson who, with a little help, conducted the biggest covert war in the history of the world on behalf of the United States, coming to the aid of Afghan fighters against invading troops of the USSR.
Charlie Wilson however, is no squeaky clean American hero. He’s a man of many vices, and we first meet him drunk and cavorting naked in a Las Vegas hot tub full of strippers. He’s surrounded by bubbles and playboy playmates the first time he hears about the plight of Afghanistan, from a Dan Rather report on a nearby television. Prodded into action by a beautiful, wealthy Texas heiress and contributor played by Julie Roberts, for reasons we’re never exactly privy to, Charlie decides to stop carousing and do something. Using his position in Congress, and getting a lot of help from a discarded CIA operative named Gust (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Charlie puts together a complicated network of power players to secretly deliver a billion dollars in advanced weaponry to the Afghan rebels.
More interesting though than any of those grandiose world issues is the relationship formed between Charlie and Gust. Julia Roberts is kind of a non-factor, unless you’ve been dying to see her in a bikini, there’s no other reason to notice her. Hanks and Hoffman however deliver Oscar caliber performances here, playing off each other like they’re trapped in the world’s coolest buddy comedy instead of a boring movie about political maneuvering and saving the children (the same children who would later go on to form the Taliban). The shorthand they develop between one another as they race around the globe finding ways to deliver death to the Russians is fantastic and the movie’s worth seeing just to watch these two characters go at it. In fact, scrap this flick. Get them in some sort of buddy cop pic stat.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is much less entertaining, except perhaps as an “oh that’s how that happened” historical document. Especially in the latter half, it gets bogged down in lame, archive footage montages showing helicopters blowing things up in Afghanistan, and even more lame footage of badly coached actors pretending to be some sort of Three-Stooges version of Afghan rebel fighters firing off missiles. Hoffman and Hanks are so good, that the rest of the movie just looks even worse by comparison. It’s kind of a mess.
The film does touch on a few hot button issues though, if only briefly. There’s a brief scene where Charlie and another congressman wonder if maybe letting Communism take over might not be better than helping a bunch of crazy, religious zealots hold onto the country. But such introspection is rare and the historical importance of Charlie Wilson’s war is glossed over or left to those cheesy montages. It has its moments though, and the performances from Hoffman and Hanks are so strong that, almost in spite of itself, Charlie Wilson’s War is worth a look.