(CNN) -- Mike Nichols' undercover history of the liberation of Afghanistan, "Charlie Wilson's War," is so witty and light on its feet, it's a pity it pulls its punches.
A society matron (Julia Roberts) gets a congressman (Tom Hanks) involved in the Cold War in "Charlie Wilson's War."
A deft condensation of George Crile's nonfiction best-seller, this is the story of how an obscure Texan congressman helped bring down the Soviet empire and -- indirectly -- the World Trade Center.
Universal seems at a loss as to how to market this truly tall tale -- but don't blame the publicity guys. The combined smarts of director Nichols, writer Aaron Sorkin, Tom Hanks and Co. haven't pinned down how they feel about Wilson or what he did.
The movie's tone is all over the place: sincere and celebratory one minute, caustic and ironic the next. There's nuance and complexity here, but it's doled out with broad farce and knee-jerk populist rhetoric. It's as if they want it to play inside the Beltway and hit below the belt, both at once.
Set during the Reagan era and resonating uneasily with current events, in many ways this is a deeply Clintonian movie: astute, pragmatic, equivocal and likely to prove highly contentious. (That's what you get if you put the director of "Primary Colors" with the writer of "The West Wing.")
It is fun, though.
In that regard, it could be the antidote to all those earnest war on terror pictures that have stiffed at the box office recently. It's certainly the anti-"Lions for Lambs": See, politics don't have to be boring. Especially if you're as politically incorrect as Charlie Wilson.
He was dubbed "Good Time Charlie" for his compulsive drinking, womanizing and fondness for cocaine (in a typically Clintonian gesture, the movie acknowledges the latter but allows the congressman to keep his nose clean on screen).
Booze, sex and Texas doesn't exactly scream Hanks -- any more than evangelical society matron spells Julia Roberts -- but this odd casting gives Nichols elbow room to push out toward comic caricature and vaudeville, which may be just what its Washington setting deserves. Watch the real-life inspiration for Roberts' character »
The movie gets its biggest jolt from yet another bravura turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman -- his third of the current movie season -- as unconventional CIA agent Gust Avrakotos. With his dark glasses and bushy mustache, Hoffman seems to have adopted a permanent disguise, but he tells it like he sees it and mostly doesn't like what he sees. When we first see him, he underlines a complaint by taking a hammer to his supervisor's glass office.
The film's funniest scene is pure French farce, an echo chamber of slamming doors as the congressman juggles a breaking ethics probe involving his secretarial pool (affectionately known as "Jailbait") while Gust gives him the inside dope on covert ops.
Hanks brings a certain well-worn sophistication -- and impeccable timing -- to Charlie's roguish ways. "Why does Congress say one thing and do nothing?" demands a fired-up Roberts.
Hanks lets it sit there a beat. "Tradition, mostly."
Armed with a seat on the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, Wilson successfully upped covert CIA funding for the mujahedeen from $5 million in 1980 to $500 million by the end of the decade, with matching money from Saudi Arabia and tacit support from Israel.
The movie takes an indulgent view of this chicanery and Wilson's "bring on the belly dancers" approach to Middle Eastern diplomacy, but it's never quite so debonair on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Nichols seems to regress to a third-rate "Rambo" hack.
Spry and droll, for the most part, "Charlie Wilson's War" can't quite shrug off the unforeseen repercussions of this triumphant episode. Wilson was a Democrat, but that's neither here nor there; the system enabled him to funnel armaments to "freedom fighters" with next to no democratic accountability.
Maybe it wasn't his fault those chickens came home to roost in the form of the Taliban, but you have to wonder: Would Nichols have given Oliver North such an easy ride? E-mail to a friend