CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR * * * * *
Cert 15, 102 min
I don't suppose former Democratic Texas congressman Charles Nesbitt Wilson is on Osama Bin Laden's Christmas card list, but without him it's quite possible that Afghanistan would still be under Russian control.
It's also unlikely that events actually unfurled in quite the way they're depicted on screen, but such is the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin's screenplay, adapted from George Crile's book, Mike Nichols' direction and the central performances, that you'd like to believe they did.
Indeed, it turns out that the story Wilson tells of how he got into politics after sabotaging the re-election of the man who killed his dog, is in fact verbatim. Maybe things like this you just can't make up.
Back in the mid 80s, Wilson (Tom Hanks) was a liberal wheeler dealer Congressman with a fondness for whisky, women and the occasional line of cocaine. A man who, if we are to accept the film version, staffed his office with attractive, well-endowed young women he affectionately called jailbait but was also a smooth talking charmer whose roguish sense of fun and flippancy belied his high ranking power status.
In Nichols' breezily comedic satirical account, in 1980, after seeing a TV report about the ineffectually armed Mujahideen's impossible struggle against the Soviet occupation and reading about the Afghan refugees, the patriotic anti-Communist Wilson used his new position on the House's Defence Appropriations Subcommittee, responsible for CIA funding, to immediately double the budget from $5 million to $10 million.
In 1983, he earmarked $17 million to provide anti-aircraft weapons to destroy the Soviet helicopters that were slaughtering the population. By the time the Russians finally withdrew, Wilson had succeeded in directing some $500 million of Pentagon cash to fund the Afghan rebels, negotiating for an equal amount to be supplied by Saudi Arabia.
In a story too audacious to be fiction and with the help of a distracting belly dancer friend, he also managed to persuade an Israeli arms dealer and the Egyptian deputy defence minister to work together to supply arms.
But if Wilson was instrumental in helping bring down the Soviet Union and end the Cold War with the largest covert operation in history, he didn't do it alone.
Born again Houston socialite and sometime lover Joanne Herring (a stylishly coquettish Julia Roberts) persuaded Wilson to take the trip to Pakistan where he'd meet with President Zia (Om Puri) and visit the refugee camps that would provide the moral imperative to reinforce his political inclinations. And it was Herring who would prove instrumental in arranging fund raisers and pointing Christian-minded movers and shakers in his direction.
Then there was Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a rogue blue-collar Greek-American CIA agent on the Afghan desk with a ferociously undiplomatic streak, a seething sense of resentment for his clock-punching colleagues, and an address book full of all the right contacts. And, like Wilson, a deep affinity for the bullied underdog. Think of them as a sort of anti-commie Three Musketeers.
There's no denying the serious spine to the subject matter and Nichols provides both sobering footage of Soviet atrocities and a brief coda that underlines how the US's refusal to follow up military aid with funding for reconstruction or a hearts and minds foreign policy was partially responsible for subsequent events involving the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
But he doesn't make the mistake of playing the film as earnest political drama.
There's an almost sitcom air to the barbed banter and narrative, most amusingly so when Wilson keeps asking Gust to leave the room while his secretaries provide updates on a breaking drugs scandal in which he may be implicated while scenes involving Amy Adams as Wilson's PA and an Emily Blunt cameo firmly illustrate the film's sense of sly wit.
Hanks' beautifully judged, unmannered yet larger than life performance as the self-confessedly flawed Wilson is easily among the very best of his career. But even he can't stop a marvellously shock-haired Hoffman from stealing their shared scenes.
After the preachy lecturing of Lions For Lambs and the sledgehammer approach of The Kingdom, it's good to finally see a film about American politics that has a brain but also knows how to win the vote for feelgood entertainment too.
DAN IN REAL LIFE * * *
Cert PG, 98 mins
Still reeling from the reviews for Evan Almighty, Steve Carell finds his mark once again with this touching bittersweet comedy drama.
Screenwriter Peter Hedges' follow-up to directorial debut Pieces of April, it again revolves around a family reunion.
Carell plays elder son Dan, a parental advice columnist for a New Jersey paper who, four years widowed, is now raising three daughters as a single parent.
Understandably overprotective, it's proving a tough ride. His eldest, Jane (Alison Pill), resents the fact that although she now has her driving licence he won't let her behind the wheel of the family car. Fifteen-year-old Cara (Brittany Robertson) resents that dad insists she's too young to have fallen hopelessly in love for the first time
Then there's feisty eight-year-old Lilly (Marlene Lawston) who has an older head on her shoulders than her father realises. As she says, he's a good father but sometimes he can be a bad dad.
On an annual extended family gathering with at his folks' (John Mahoney, Dianne Weist) Rhode Island beach house, sensing the tensions between him and the girls, mom packs him off out of the house on an errand.
Down at the local bookstore Dan meets cute with Marie (Juliette Binoche). They talk, have coffee, there's an obvious mutual attraction and, for the first time, he thinks he might be able to fall in love again.
She witty, attractive, outgoing, understanding and, when they meet, his girls are clearly as enchanted by her as are his parents, siblings and assorted in-laws.
There's just one small problem. She happens to be the new girlfriend of Dan's brother Mitch (Dane Cook), an inveterate womaniser who declares that this time it's the real thing.
Naturally, neither Marie nor Dan can admit or show their feelings for one another which, inevitably, is going to make for a bit of a difficult weekend streaked with frustration, hurt and jealousy.
There's times when it threatens to sink into a sugar pit of fuzzy syrup with the Burns clan proving an almost impossibly idyllic family with their parlour games, cosy dinners and metaphorical group hugs.
But, fortunately, Hedges manages to also bring a balancing tartness to proceedings with Dan's self-pitying sulks while also capturing a sense of real pain and regret in the glances shared between him and Marie.
It could, perhaps, have done without its moments of pratfall farce, but mercifully this not being a Steve Martin or Jim Carrey vehicle, that's kept to a minimum.
Carell nicely underplays to allow Dan's epiphanies to emerge naturally while, after what feels like a lifetime of doing dour and gloom, Binoche reveals herself a sprightly comedic talent, the chemistry between them unaffected and genuine.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves well, young Lawston especially potent at hitting the tear glands, and even Cook manages to partially redeem himself for the appalling Good Luck Chuck.
Bonus marks too for the week's second sparkling cameo by Emily Blunt as childhood chum cum blind date Ruthie Draper who cues the audience that happy endings that work for everyone are not beyond reach.
Easy-going and crowd-pleasingly affable, it might eventually melt into something of a puddle, but chances are your heart will too.