Charlie Wilson's War is certainly the most entertaining of this fall's slate of political movies. "Entertaining" may seem like an odd standard to apply given the dire geopolitical situation, but people haven't exactly been flocking to In The Valley of Elah or Lions for Lambs. I should mention at this point that I am a full-fledged Aaron Sorkin nut, and even belong to a Facebook group called "I Speak Sorkinese." Even Sorkin would have a hard time fitting his trademark dialogue into a present-day Iraq War drama, although I would be interested in Sorkin's depiction of our troops in battle. Elah and Lambs were very different movies, but both go out of their way to condescend to our men in battle; Elah paints an especially broad picture of the troops, every one of the comrades of Tommy Lee Jones' late son is portrayed as one cold cup of coffee away from a psychotic break. I have a feeling Sorkin could do better.
Charlie Wilson's War isn't set during our current conflict, but it does comment on it loudly. Just like on The West Wing, smart and well-meaning people work very hard to run the United States. But unlike on TV, they mess it up here. Rep. Charlie Wilson (a broad Tom Hanks) is in a hot tub when he catches a news report about underpowered Afghans fighting the Russian invaders. Full of anti-Communist fervor, Wilson uses his position on a subcommittee to raise more money for the Afghans. But it's the involvement of a neocon Texas socialite (Julia Roberts) and a loner CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose opening monologue should sew up the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) who really get the bucks flowing. Soon, jubilant Afghans are shooting down Russian helicopters with shoulder fired rockets.
Although billions are allocated to help defeat the Russians and "end the Cold War" (didn't Gorbachev have something to do with that?), a closing scene depicts Wilson unable to get $1 million to rebuild Afghan schools. I just read Rory Stewart's book Prince of the Marshes, a memoir of his time working for the coalition on post-invasion Iraq. Stewart, away from the bureaucratic mess in Bagdhad, gets redevelopment projects done with money, time, and open ears. Afghanistan in the '80s and early '90s could have used that approach. Countries aren't won over to our way of life by military might, they're just flattened by it. Just as Hoffman's CIA agent predicts, after the U.S. withdraws the forces of religious fundamentalism move in and Hello, Taliban.
The pure pleasure of the film can't be ignored, the dialogue crackles and Mike Nichols keeps things moving along. The three leads (not to mention Amy Adams and Ned Beatty) all appear to be enjoying themselves immensely. But it's the U.S. confusion and halting action in the face of Muslim culture - a theme Sorkin also dealt with on The West Wing - that lingers in the mind. Could the best political movie of '07 also be the funniest?