'GUBU' is how Charlie Haughey might have described the life of Charlie Wilson, the fascinating subject of Mike Nichols' absorbing new political satire.

And though 'grotesque' may be too strong a word in describing Wilson's hedonistic fondness for booze and women, 'unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented' more than summarise the third element that his career is most noteworthy for.

A little-known US congressman from Texas, Wilson's career seemed destined to fade into obscurity were it not for the fact that he somehow managed to organise the largest ever CIA covert war in 1980s Afghanistan.

Arming the Mujahideen with $300m worth of US weapons; Wilson's intervention led to the withdrawal of Russian troops from the county, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eventual mess that is today's Afghanistan.

As history has since taught us, the US government's floundering in the wake of 'Wilson's War' came back to bite the US in the ass - and it bit big.

Nichols' movie thus has a deep relevance to current events in world politics, not just in terms of Afghanistan but more directly with the Iraq invasion.

The film's opening, that of an Afghani Mujahideen firing at the screen (is he from the 1980s or modern day? Is he firing at us or his unseen Russian enemy?), mirrors its conclusion, with Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin ('The West Wing') preferring to imply links to modern day events rather than say them directly.

It's a method which suits the film which, despite brimming with political ploys and diplomatic dealings, remains light, digestible and consistently funny.

Any finger pointing or direct focus on political implications would have served to take away from the fact that 'Charlie Wilson's War' is at its heart a comedy, and one which relies on the unbelievable (yet almost entirely true) nature of its story, as much as it does its dialogue, in extracting laughter from its audience.

Adapted from George Crile's lengthy 2003 book of the same time, Nichols and Sorkin keep the pace sharp and smart and a tale which could have easily stretched to three hours is constructively condensed into an entertaining 97 minutes.

Hanks gives a fine performance in the lead role, succeeding in dropping his everyman image just enough in order to convey Wilson's southern sliminess, a characteristic which he doubles as charm.

Chubby and charismatic, he also physically resembles 1980s-era Wilson and his comic timing is commendable in drawing maximum laughs from the most mundane dialogue.

On second billing, Julia Roberts once again confirms that she is one of the most overrated actresses of her generation with a typically dull and lacklustre performance as Joanne Herring, a wealthy Texan, friend and romantic interest of Wilson's.

The real star of the show comes in the shape of Hoffman who, as ever, steals every scene he's in with his superb portrayal of frustrated, rude and rough-weathered CIA spy Gust Avrakotos.

Playing his role with a simmering, scornful menace, Hoffman succeeds in bringing out the best in those around him and Hanks is at his finest when opposite Hoffman, particularly in their first scene onscreen.

Furthermore the pair develop an unlikely alliance, which fuels the film's comic moments while Hanks forms the sort of onscreen chemistry with Hoffman that is sorely missing from his scenes with Roberts.

If the film does draw one criticism, then it is that Wilson's own character isn't explored enough. There are hints at inner demons such as a deep loneliness, alcoholism and tears behind the clown façade, though none are probed. Nichols would argue that the film isn't necessarily about Wilson - and to be fair he'd have a point - though such an extraordinary story may have warranted a fuller picture of the man behind it.

Nonetheless, though 'Charlie Wilson's War' may not prove the major Oscar winner Hanks and Co may hope for, here is rollicking good cinema, endlessly entertaining and powered by one of the more fascinating stories in recent US political history.

Steve Cummins