Charlie Wilson’s War is a political black comedy about a hard-drinking, cocaine snorting, womanizing congressman who conspires with a CIA agent with a tendency to tell his superiors to go fuck themselves, along with the Saudis, Israelis, Egyptians, and Pakistanis to wage a secret guerilla war in Afghanistan. It might seem at home on the shelf next to movies like Wag the Dog, or even Canadian Bacon.
Except for one thing . . . it’s all true.
Even the most unbelievable parts are true. Charlie Wilson really did take a Texas belly dancer to Egypt to entertain the Egyptian defense minister. Israel really did conspire with three Muslim countries to help aid an Islamic resistance movement. And Charlie Wilson really did almost singlehandedly set the U.S. on the path towards defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan over the vehement objections of some people in the CIA.
There’s much more to the story than can be told in a two hour movie of course. The book Charlie Wilson’s War, by George Crile, on which the movie is based, does an excellent job of telling the behind the scenes story of the funding of the Afghan war. Other books, like Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, and The Main Enemy, by Milt Bearden, do an excellent job of telling how events unfolded in Afghanistan and Pakistan, rather than Washington. However, Aaron Sorkin’s script really hits the high points and the important events. Unlike The Golden Compass, Charlie Wilson’s War is a textbook example of how to adapt a book for the screen, condensing the tale and capturing the feel, without needing to include every detail.
The movie also vividly portrays Charlie Wilson and Gust Avrakotos, the two larger than life characters who turned American aid to the Afghans from an ineffective drizzle into a massive flood. Tom Hanks manages to capture both “Good Time Charlie”, the womanizing boozer, and the serious Charlie, who admired Winston Churchill and desperately wanted to accomplish something significant. Julia Roberts turns in an excellent performance as Joanne Herring, the conservative Christian socialite who set Charlie Wilson on course to become the Afghan’s greatest champion in Washington. Though Hanks and Roberts provide stiff competition, the best performance in the movie belongs to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as blue collar Greek-American CIA agent Gust Avrakotos. Hoffman is the star of every scene he’s in and his performance as Gust is definitely Oscar-worthy.
Charlie Wilson’s War has a snappy, funny, wittily worded Aaron Sorkin screenplay and excellent performances from three of the best actors around. It also provides a window into events that a lot of people in this country have forgotten about, or never knew in the first place. With America’s support, the Afghan war not only helped bring the Soviet Union to it’s knees, but our lack of follow through after the Red Army withdrew laid the seeds for the Taliban regime and provided a base for Al’Qaeda. As we face choices about how to proceed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the lessons of these events loom large.