Lawyers, Guns and Money

Charlie Wilson's War shows how the West won the battle, lost the peace and found itself in a whole different kind of fight.

Charlie Wilson's War is the kind of movie that really gets called smart only because everything else that comes out of Hollywood is usually so stupid. Either that, or let's face it: we are all just one big bunch of dumb people too easily wowed by a cinematic emperor wearing little more than a smarty-pants smirk. Charlie is charming, electrically well-written and ' in a season of heavy-on-the-drama-sauce war-related millstones of inertia like Lions for Lambs and Rendition ' startlingly nimble. It's fun to watch, and while its tone occasionally creates dizzying dissonances with its content, it does verge on having something interesting to say. But "engaging" is not exactly the same thing as "intelligent," no matter how many times critics and audiences mistake the two. Charlie Wilson's War is odd, fresh even. It is not an especially smart movie, however, or an important one, or even an especially memorable one. Seems like something truly smart wouldn't be quite so forgettable.

You cannot blame screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Mike Nichols for trying, though. Charlie Wilson was made to have a movie made about his life. The 12-term congressman from East Texas is the kind of character a fiction writer simply could never make up. A Navy man whose first foray into the political realm was a teenage act of revenge against a neighbor who killed his beloved dog, Wilson (Tom Hanks) goes out of his way to earn his Washington nickname of "Good Time Charlie." He staffs his office with perky, fawning females, worshipful assistant Bonnie Bach (the suddenly ubiquitous Amy Adams) foremost among them. Her beloved boss is Teddy Kennedy without Chappaquiddick (or the tragic family tree or the eventually realized promise of true political prowess). He belongs to a political party all right, but it is his own and one fueled by booze and women and Las Vegas suites. Then, quite accidentally, Charlie finds a cause.

An ardent anti-Communist, Charlie reads a wire story about the Afghan fight to repel Soviet invaders and uses his position on a congressional committee to double the budget for covert operations in the Central Asian country pretty much on the spot. His largesse catches the heavily mascara-ed eye of Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), herself a political dabbler with a decidedly geopolitical agenda, and a request for CIA information gets him the disheveled, misanthropic Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Charlie's charm and disturbingly easy access to the U.S. Treasury flirts with Joanne's fervor and high-level connections (her friends include Pakistani president Zia ul-Haq) and marries Gust's conspiratorial canaille, the three setting out to create their own little Cold War conclusion. In between the martinis and the arms deals, the belly dancers and the closed door committee arm-twisting, Charlie is investigated for alleged drug use by a young prosecutor named Rudolph Giulani and, oh yeah, occasionally gets a little misty late at night about those brave Afghan fighters getting demolished by the Soviet war machine.

Sorkin's script bubbles with his usual effortless effervescence. He knows how to write likeable, literate people (The West Wing, Sports Night, A Few Good Men, The American President). Hanks wants to be good as Wilson, and he almost is. It's nice to see him play a scoundrel for a change, even if there's a heavy dose of Forrest Gump-tion in his portrayal at moments. (Maybe it's the accent?) Roberts, to her credit, plays the haughty, hellbent Herring with a sense of muted camp that is arresting if never fully developed. Both performances are flat-out fun, as is Hoffman's alluringly repulsive Gust.

But there's something about all this madcap jocularity that jars Charlie Wilson's War. Sorkin writes ' and Nichols directs ' as though this were nothing more than a gleeful farce, three wacky kids and their crazy international hijinks. This creates one spectacular scene when Gust and Charlie first find each other (the only high point of Nichols' frankly amateurish direction) and a series of amusing, if ultimately empty vignettes. So while Charlie is fun to watch, it's also uncomfortable. Did Wilson's "war" strike a blow against the ailing Russian empire? Probably. But it also serves as a prime example of the West's intermittent and heavy-handed involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia, the kind that creates power vacuums that can be and often are filled by, well, the Taliban while the local populace pays the price. It's smart to point that out; it's crass to treat it like a joke, no matter how charismatic a cut-up character like Charlie Wilson might be.