Charmed Life
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Charlie Wilson's War (R)

3 stars out of 4

Texas democrat Charlie Wilson served as a U.S. congressman from 1973 to 1996. If even half of what we see in director Mike Nichols' new movie is correct, Wilson had a grand time doing so.

A lifelong bachelor, skirt chaser and booze hound, Wilson - much like the Bill Clinton-inspired character in Nichols' similar "Primary Colors" - knew how to party but was also quite adept at his job. He understood how Washington - and Texas - politics worked and, next to Clinton, might be the greatest horse-trader in this country's modern history.

Shortly after the movie opens in late 1980, Wilson (Tom Hanks) is seen in Las Vegas, sharing a hot tub with hookers, a Playboy cover girl and a sleazy, money-grubbing TV producer. As quickly as we jump to the conclusion that Wilson can be bought, sold, hoodwinked and played for a chump, he politely excuses himself and in a most gentlemanly way, makes it clear he won't be trifled with.

Upon returning to Washington, news-junkie Wilson catches up on the latest wire reports coming out of Afghanistan. He instructs his secretary (Amy Adams) to look into the current U.S. funding for the Afghani-Soviet war. At the same time, Wilson gets a call from constituent Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a former Texas beauty queen and committed anti-Communist with close ties to the current president of Pakistan (Om Puri). She wants Charlie to "do something" over there in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, over at the C.I.A., disgruntled covert agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is wrecking his boss' office after receiving news of an assignment slighting. A blunt, disheveled, suffer-no-fools-gladly sort, Avrakotos knows more about what's happening in Afghanistan than anyone in any branch of the U.S. government. It doesn't take him long to cross paths with Wilson.

In adapting George Crile's biography of Wilson, "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin infuses the screenplay with clever one-liners, comebacks and zingers, which mostly hit their mark but seem more suited for network TV.

Sorkin is a master when it comes to distilling a great amount of thought into few words, yet even with the added luxury of profanity and adult situations, his script feels ready-made as a cable movie-of-the-week. He tosses in too much war/intelligence jargon which will be lost on the casual viewer. In Sorkin's defense, Nichols' movie is only about 90 minutes long, so he had to cram a lot into a relatively small space. This is one of the few films where another half-hour would have been readily welcomed.

Without overtly trying to do so, Nichols' movie takes an anti-war/pro-democracy stance, but not with the usual namby-pamby hand-wringing and political soap-boxing. Though occasionally a little too cute and clever for it's own good, "Charlie Wilson's War" never fails to keep the audience hooked and enthralled. (Universal)