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Originally published December 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 22, 2007 at 1:57 AM

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Movie review

All-star cast in top form for "Charlie Wilson's War"

"Charlie Wilson's War" is paced like a screwball comedy and written like a satire, even though it has truth at its core.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Charlie Wilson's War," with Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ned Beatty. Directed by Mike Nichols, from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by George Crile. 102 minutes. Rated R for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use. Several theaters.

"Why is Congress saying one thing and doing another?" wonders Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts).

"Tradition, mostly," drawls Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks).

"Charlie Wilson's War" comes on the heels of a number of ill-fated Hollywood war movies this season — but this one is something else again. Directed by Mike Nichols and scripted by Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing"), it's paced like a screwball comedy and written like a satire, even though it has truth at its core. A playboy congressman and a diamond-dripping anti-Communist, in the early 1980s, masterminded U.S. involvement in the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. With rogue CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — and staying remarkably under the radar of the media — they increased funding for the Afghan freedom fighters (from $5 million annually to $1 billion), negotiated alliances over a period of years, and ultimately watched as the Soviet army retreated after nine years of occupation.

George Crile documented this strange story, and its three larger-than-life main characters, in his 2003 book "Charlie Wilson's War," and it comes to the screen as if it was meant to be there. Nichols, one of the great actors' directors, gets terrific performances out of his three stars; they spark off each other, creating a speedy, screwball rhythm. A door-slamming scene, set in the congressman's office as he tries to deal with multiple interruptions, is right out of a French farce.

Hanks, swaggering in cowboy boots, makes a genial comic figure of Wilson, a bachelor congressman from Texas with a keen eye for women (his young office staff all look like models) and whiskey. ("I love you," a stripper coos to Charlie. "Well," he responds gamely, "it helps not to know me.") He's a cheerful, boozy scoundrel, yet he's drawn to do the right thing, and when his longtime friend (and occasional lover) Herring urges him to join her in aiding the freedom fighters, he dives right in. Herring, so rich she walks around with two greyhounds in her wake (the dogs also appear in a version of the John Singer Sargent painting "Madame X" on Herring's mansion wall — with the blond-wigged socialite as the model), is accustomed to getting what she wants, and Roberts and Hanks together have enough chemistry to fill a lab.

Hoffman, with his lazy croak of a voice, is the funniest of the three; a man so frustrated with what he sees as his failure to advance with the CIA that he routinely breaks office windows and ends a litany of his accomplishments with "and I'm never, ever sick at sea." (Yes, every political satire needs a touch of Gilbert & Sullivan.) In those weirdly orange-tinted glasses that men inexplicably wore in the '80s, he completes this oddball trio, sparring rapid-fire with Hanks like an old-time comedy team.

There are moments when the film's pace slows down to remind us that this was a real war, with real casualties: we see horribly maimed Afghan children and heartbroken mothers. And the ending makes clear that this war, even though it was won, had consequences that reverberate today. It's a message worth hearing, wrapped in wit and movie-star glamour; the season's oddest and perhaps most effective war movie.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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