Directors in the Oscar race

It’s easy to think of Nichols, who presaged “the New Hollywood” with films like “The Graduate” and “Carnal Knowledge,” as not quite the provocateur of old. But with “Charlie Wilson’s War,” about the real-life Texas senator who in the ’80s led a covert charge against the Russians in Afghanistan, Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin dig at a confounding truth while probing the dire consequences. “We knew that what was there had to work,” says the Oscar-winning helmer. “You’re tied to it. You can’t make it up; you can’t even make episodes up. If you’re looking for metaphors, you have to look at what happened.”

As for smoothing the rough edges of the hard-partying title character played by Tom Hanks, Nichols will admit no such thing. “We, not unreasonably, based Charlie on the Charlie we knew, who is an enormously courtly and gracious and deeply gentle and kind man who is respectful of everyone.” He was also a man in the midst of a drug scandal that threatened to derail his mission to arm the Afghan Mujahideen. “Washington scandals have been the same dating back to Alexander Hamilton,” says Nichols. “It’s the response to the scandal that’s changed. The thing is, Charlie is almost unique in that he never denied anything.”

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