Charlie Wilson's War belongs to a peculiar subgenre: the foreign-policy sex comedy. It isn't quite Three's Company Goes To Kabul, but Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin's leering adaptation of George Crile's too-strange-for-fiction bestseller boasts a lightness of touch that proves both a strength and a weakness. Thanks in no small part to a flamboyant star turn from Tom Hanks as a rowdy congressman with a mind for the intricacies of guerrilla warfare and a bod for sin, it's a whole lot of fun. But it could and should be much more.
Hanks radiates gregarious charm as the title character, a liberal Texas congressman whose good-ol'-boy exterior and insatiable appetite for booze and broads hides a brilliant, calculating mind and a genius for cutting through bureaucracy. While enjoying the company of strippers in a hot tub one lost evening in Las Vegas, Hanks is stirred by the plight of Afghan rebels battling a vast Soviet army. With the help of two unlikely allies—gruff CIA man Philip Seymour Hoffman and wealthy right-wing social butterfly Julia Roberts—Hanks plays a crucial role in covertly funding the rebels' long, hard-fought victory against the Communist superpower.
Crile's book is so sprawling, colorful, and packed with outlandish incidents and larger-than-life characters that perhaps only a six-hour miniseries à la Nichols' masterful adaptation of Angels In America could do it justice. At 97 minutes, War feels awfully slight, especially since it skips giddily from the early '80s to the end of the Cold War without covering much ground in between. The film coasts along breezily on the strength of its leads' charisma and a clever script full of effervescent wit, but it doesn't have the gravity to do justice to the blowback and unforeseen consequences of the U.S. arming Islamic fundamentalists intent on making jihad against secular infidels. War should be a comedy that becomes a tragedy, yet its tragic undercurrents feel like a hasty afterthought. In the book, Crile writes that the tall tale of Wilson's foreign-policy misadventures is both "a rousing good story" and a "cautionary tale." Nichols succeeds in spinning an entertaining yarn, but the cautionary aspects feel fatally undernourished.