Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was a Texas congressman, a jolly womanizer but otherwise fairly low-level until his good friend former beauty queen Joanne (Julia Roberts) convinces him to take time away from his hot tub shenanigans to make a little trip to help the Afghan people.
In the early 80s he visits the Pakistani president who is frustrated with inadequate American support in opposing the Soviet Union. Pakistan is flooded with Afghan refugees (a fifth of them!), but thousands of others have been slain. They send Wilson to a refugee camp and he can’t help but be moved by what he sees there. Going home a changed man in his heart, he rallies around the cause. His personal life, though is still a shambles: US Attorney Rudy Giuliani is leading an investigation against him for allegations of cocaine use.
Philip Seymour Hoffman provides brilliant support as a maverick CIA guy who is leading the covert US effort in Afghanistan. Wilson ultimately multiplies the American contribution by a hundred fold, and it becomes a huge part of the foreign policy of the time, but there aren’t exactly a lot of easy answers here and Hoffman’s crazy windmilling arms tell us a lot about the near-impossibility of his job.
Julia Roberts is of course poised as hell, the perfect choice for a controlled, smart, beautiful woman who knows what she wants, and how to manipulate men to get it. The few scenes she shares with Amy Adams, playing Wilson’s administrative assistant, are quite punchy, their rivalry crackling. Emily Blunt makes a brief appearance in her underwear as well, which means I didn’t know who Emily Blunt was back in 2007 when I would have seen this for the first time.
Tom Hanks is commanding as always, but I have to wonder whether he was the right man for the role. Some of the juiciest material of this “true story” seems to have all but disappeared, his drug use played down (have we ever seen Hanks snort cocaine?), his DUI unmentioned, and his worry about what happens when the US inevitably disengages from Afghanistan only vaguely alluded to.
The truth is, there were unintended consequences to this involvement. When Afghanistan lay in ruins, the US pulled out, washed their hands of death and destruction they had funded, and this left a vacuum for Osama bin Laden to emerge as a power player. I have read from multiple sources that Tom Hanks couldn’t deal with the 9-11 implications, so they were largely written out, with just the identifiable sound of a plane flying over Washington hinting at what was to come. The film is quite good, almost great, but I do wonder if someone else was bringing it to life, could it have maybe been a Dr. Strangelove for a new generation? I guess we’ll never know.