Mike Nichols takes on Charlie Wilson's War (Re: Afghanistan)

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Any hack can film a sex scene, but director Mike Nichols is a connoisseur of pre- and postcoital moments. He was the guy, don't forget, behind that indelible image of Anne Bancroft slipping off her nylon stocking in "The Graduate," as Dustin Hoffman hovered near the hotel-room door. Now, in "Charlie Wilson's War," he stages an après-sex scene between Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in which he avoids the cliché of "sheets tangled just so, and the man getting out of bed in his boxer shorts," as Nichols puts it. He places his actors in a palatial bathroom, with Hanks, as the hard-partying Texas congressman Wilson, soaking in the tub, while Roberts, as a Houston socialite who's his occasional lover, sits in front of a mirror applying her makeup. Now that she's slept with him, there are a few things she wants—items not available from Neiman Marcus. And as she talks, she concentrates on separating her thickly mascaraed eyelashes with the lethal end of a safety pin.

Nichols's films seem to speak for their time—"The Graduate," "Carnal Knowledge"—and sometimes uncannily so. "Primary Colors," about a presidential candidate of voracious appetites, opened just after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Though "Charlie Wilson's War," based on the nonfiction best seller by George Crile, is set in the 1980s, its themes—Washington power-brokering, and the secret arming of Afghan rebels against the Soviets—hit home in the post-9/11 world. But politics isn't Nichols's motivation. He's after singular characters he can unpeel in front of the camera.

At first, he resisted taking on "Charlie Wilson's War." "I don't like reality movies," he says. "You can't make anything up." Then he met the real Charlie Wilson. "Here was a politician who was not prerecorded," Nichols says. "He's not simple at all." Wilson is a good ole boy of immense, unpredictable charm (he even briefly dated Nichols's future wife, Diane Sawyer), and Aaron Sorkin's knowing script plays up the comic possibilities of Wilson and the quirky figures surrounding him. The film begins with a richly detailed sequence of scenes—a Las Vegas hotel, a Capitol Hill office—each a perfect little playlet that shows off the director at his best...

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