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'Charlie Wilson's War'

After a whole fall of serious films about the Middle East, who'da thunk you could make a comedy (!) about arming the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets in the 1980s?

Charlie Wilson's War is a walk on the geopolitical wild side with some seriously larger-than-life companions: The title character, played by Tom Hanks, is an old-school good 'ol boy, a back-slapping, joke-telling, hard-drinking Texas politician first seen lounging in a Vegas hot tub with a gaggle of naked showgirls.

Even in their company, though, Rep. Charlie Wilson can't help wondering why Dan Rather is wearing a turban on the evening news. Turns out the Soviets are about to invade Afghanistan, so Wilson arranges for a CIA briefing, and ... well, let's just say things changed after that.

Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin wrote the screenplay, based on George Crile's book about a string of covert operations that somehow got Jewish arms dealers to supply weapons for Muslim fundamentalists. Texas socialite Joan Herring (Julia Roberts, in charming overdrive) and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman, understatedly hilarious) figure prominently, and Hanks is a blustering wonder.

What makes the film jaw-dropping is that all this actually happened. But what makes it entertaining is that director Mike Nichols gives it a satirical spin in the retelling, with a light touch even when it comes to the story's central irony — how all that "enemy of my enemy" business played out a few years later. (Recommended)

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.