The Contenders

Release date: Dec. 25 Distributor: Universal

From “Wag the Dog” to “Primary Colors,” Oscar loves a salacious political satire. “Charlie Wilson’s War” makes George Bush’s college indiscretions look like child’s play compared to the kind of shenanigans Texas Congressman Charles Wilson perpetrated while in office.

Not even a drunken hit-and-run and charges of cocaine possession could stop the larger-than-life politician (played by perennial Oscar favorite Tom Hanks) from running what George Crile’s bestseller refers to as “the largest covert operation in history.” Encouraged by a curvaceous Houston socialite (Julia Roberts), Wilson used his influence to funnel weapons to the Afghan mujahideen so they could fight the occupying Soviet forces.

It’s ripe territory: Knowing what we do now, Wilson’s pet project not only crippled Russia’s efforts in the Cold War but also unwittingly laid the groundwork for 9/11. Career instigator Mike Nichols has been nominated for directing four times before, and politics is scribe Aaron Sorkin’s undisputed arena. Word is strong on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s supporting turn as Wilson’s CIA conspirator, a socially awkward foil to the congressman’s playboy personality.

Keep in mind nobody has yet seen “War,” so expectations depend heavily on the pedigree of those involved — a tactic that has backfired on Nichols before (“Closer”). The tone of the trailer alternates wildly between satire and seriousness, making it tough to pin down. The Academy occasionally rewards political sendups with acting and writing accolades but reserves picture honors for those that play it straight, which could mean the difference between “The Insider” (seven noms) and “Thank You for Smoking” (none).

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