As the door swings open to Julia Roberts’ suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, you half expect to find her in a bubble bath howling Prince tunes. Or at least splayed out on the carpet nibbling strawberries with champagne. This is, after all, the very spot where she charged Richard Gere $300 a night for the pleasure of her company in Pretty Woman, the movie that, 17 years ago, began her reign as the most sought-after starlet of the 1990s. But one look at the actress perched regally on the sofa with a fluffy scarf wrapped around her neck — ”I’ve got a cold,” she explains — and it’s clear she’ll be doing the junket scene from Notting Hill instead.
”I don’t know why they picked this hotel,” Roberts says with a shrug as a flock of publicists with clipboards and BlackBerries flutter out of the room. ”I’ve never done interviews here before. I never come here at all. I feel stupid. I can hear the Pretty Woman soundtrack in my head.”
The reason she’s here on this overcast November afternoon is to do publicity for Charlie Wilson’s War, the first film in which she shares screen time with that other matinee mainstay of the 1990s, Tom Hanks. But unlike the frothy love stories these two were whipping up a decade ago, nobody in this movie finds a soul mate at the Empire State Building or tries to wreck a best friend’s wedding — although at one point they do sort of ”meet cute” at a refugee camp in Pakistan. Based on the late 60 Minutes producer George Crile’s best-selling 2003 book, it’s the true tale of a real-life, little-known Texas congressman (Hanks) who joins forces with a stubborn, right-wing blue blood (Roberts) and a temperamental CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to set in motion the largest covert operation of the Cold War: aiding the mujahideen during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. ”I’d never heard of Charlie Wilson before I read it,” admits director Mike Nichols. ”But it’s a story about how one guy changed the world. And what better time to hear that message than when we’re all feeling totally passive and helpless?” Then again, the story can’t help but remind us of how those Afghan rebels whom Charlie Wilson was secretly helping would one day grow up to become al-Qaeda.
Yes, Charlie Wilson’s War is Hollywood’s latest attempt to get moviegoers interested in global politics. (Click to read the EW review.) No matter how you spin it — Roberts, for one, likes to look at it as ”a three-part character piece” — it deals with American meddling in the Middle East and the blowback that inevitably follows. The body count for this particular genre has been high in the past few years: Syriana, Babel, A Mighty Heart, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs. Charlie Wilson’s War has some strategic advantages over the others: a snarky script by Aaron Sorkin that zips by with the snappy pacing of a West Wing episode and a hilarious, bellicose turn by Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos, the surliest spy in the CIA. Still, given box office trends, it’s a brave band of moviemakers that marches into theaters with a picture about foreign policy these days.
”I haven’t seen a lot of those other movies — are they any good?” Roberts asks, flashing that famous blinding grin in her suite at the old Reg Bev Wilsh. ”I guess on some level ours would line up with the others in the Dewey decimal system of movies,” she acknowledges. ”But when I hear people call this a ‘war’ movie, I don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s really just a movie about three people. And the tone of it is so original. It goes from lofty to light to funny to interesting. It’s like watching Cirque du Soleil.”
NEXT PAGE: ”Charlie walks in,” Hanks recalls, ”and he’s wearing cowboy boots, a brown pair of slacks, a purple shirt, and mismatching suspenders with little Spitfire airplanes on them that he’s run under the epaulets of his shirt. Half my work was done right there.”