Charlie Wilson's War

Starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Directed by Mike Nichols.
Running Time: 97 mins.
Charlie Wilson (Hanks) was a bachelor congressman from Texas whose "Good Time Charlie' personality masked an astute political mind, deep sense of patriotism and compassion for the underdog. In the early 1980s, with the looming advance of a Russian invasion, that underdog was Afghanistan.

Charlie's longtime friend, frequent patron and sometime lover was Joanne Herring (Roberts), one of the wealthiest women in Texas and a virulent anticommunist. Believing the American response to the invasion of Afghanistan was anemic at best, she prodded Charlie into doing for the Mujahideen-the country's legendary freedom fighters-what no one else could: secure funding and weapons to eradicate Soviet aggressors from their land. Charlie's partner in this uphill endeavor was CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), a bulldog, blue-collar operative who worked in the company of Ivy League blue bloods dismissive of his talents.

Together, Charlie, Joanne and Gust traveled the world to form an unlikely alliance among Pakistanis, Israelis, Egyptians, lawmakers and a belly dancer. Their success was remarkable. Over the nine-year course of the occupation of Afghanistan, United States funding for covert operations against the Soviets went from $5 million to $1 billion annually, and the Red Army subsequently retreated from Afghanistan.

In this film it is hard to know where the truth stops and the storytelling begins. If only half of this tale is true then it is an extraordinary piece of history.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that Charlie Wilson is just played for laughs. As with the best political satires, this film has decent social bite. It's not just the rightness of the cause to eject the Soviet aggressors in Afghanistan, but, more so, how "mission accomplished' on the part of the USA led to a power vacuum, the rise of the religious-right Taliban and to geopolitical instability we have today.

Tom Hanks plays the complex Charlie Wilson to perfection - a sleazy, womanizing dreamer who, when confronted with the human face to a political crisis does everything he can to help. Philip Seymour Hoffman is equally as good as the foul-mouthed, disaffected CIA operative, Gust. He has the best lines and he delivers them with relish. It is only Julia Roberts who fails to convince us she is a Machiavellian Texan matron.

All three actors assure this film of a wide audience, though there is some nudity, a sexual themes and language that some viewers will find offensive. For those who do see Charlie Wilson's War, I hope they reflect on how necessary it is to, both, right wrongs and then see through the defence of the good into long lasting benefits.

It is easy to see the deficiencies of the USA's foreign policy in this regard, but we might also think about how this win and move on attitude manifests much closer to home.

Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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