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      Charlie Wilson's War Review

      Charlie Wilson's War poster

      Charlie Wilson's War

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      Something doesn't smell right with "Charlie Wilson's War." I'm not particularly concerned with the specific facts it has left out of its telling. But what has been left in feels compromised and dodgy. The film glides along on the polish provided by the on-screen and off-screen talent, and when the 90-odd minutes have run their course, you're left with a sensation of punches pulled and a $75 million budget protected.

      Easy for a critic to say: I'm not in danger of getting sued, as far as I know. But if your protagonist is a real-life Texas congressman, famous for hell-raising and skirt-chasing and coke-snorting and drunk driving, and your man financed the rebels' 1989 defeat of the invading Soviets, and he did it with a ripe old combination of below-board politicking and above-average patriotic zeal, you should probably end up with a hotter potato than this one.

      I read the book "Charlie Wilson's War" by George Crile, who profiled the congressman on "60 Minutes," but it was a while back now, and by the time I saw director Mike Nichols' film version, taken from Aaron Sorkin's script, I had little memory of specific episodes and juicy interludes. The film re-creates a few of them, but it is cautious about painting Wilson, played by Tom Hanks, in a remotely negative light. He never does the coke on camera, for example. The drunk driving, gone. The tom-catting, very demure. (Hanks looks visibly uncertain as to how to play this guy - how much fun to have with him, or how much hell to raise.) Early on we see Hanks lounging in a Vegas hot tub with some women, while a fellow tries to cadge investment money out of everybody's favorite good-time politico. Then, boom: Without a moment's transition, the big thesis point pops on a TV screen. Charlie is absorbed by a report from Afghanistan. Why aren't we doing more to help these people?

      The question's taken up by his Houston socialite pal, an iron magnolia by the name of Joanna Herring, played by Julia Roberts in outfits that take her halfway to Texas drag queen. She and Charlie enjoy a little discreet hey-hey and she indoctrinates Charlie fully in her cause, and soon they are visiting refugee camps and throwing Texas belly-dancers at foreign dignitaries. A member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, U.S. Rep. Wilson strong-armed expenditure increases to aid the Afghan rebels. After the end, the film says in its one edgy and complicated stance, the U.S. underfunded the peacetime, paving the way for the rise of the Taliban. And look where we are now.

      Nichols is an old hand at navigating treacherous commercial and political waters. He knows in his bones that a film such as "Charlie Wilson's War" can cut only so deep and make the audiences eat only so much. (When the real Charlie Wilson came out of the L.A. premiere recently and told one interviewer, "They were kind to me," it was a dubious sign indeed.) As it has turned out, the story comes to life only when Philip Seymour Hoffman (as a hot-tempered CIA operative) provides lessons in deadpan verbal combat. When he's off the screen, the film settles back into its brisk but shallow business. It is well made as far as it goes. I wish it went beyond its own carefully prescribed limits of the commercially acceptable.

      "Charlie Wilson's War"

      Directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by George Crile; photographed by Stephen Goldblatt; edited by John Bloom and Antonia Van Drimmelen; music by James Newton Howard; production design by Victor Kempster; produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman. A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 1:37. MPAA rating: R (for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use).

      Charlie Wilson - Tom Hanks

      Joanne Herring - Julia Roberts

      Gust Avrakotos - Philip Seymour Hoffman

      Bonnie Bach - Amy Adams

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