'Charlie Wilson's War' Scores High

While you might not leave the theater saying “Charlie Wilson’s War” is the best movie you’ve ever seen, you’ll recognize it as by far the best written, best acted, least preachy, and most entertaining “politics of war” movie in some time. 

“Charlie Wilson’s War” was directed by Mike Nichols, whose work on “Primary Colors” demonstrated a sense of humor about politics.  The surprise is that this movie — which isn’t a liberal screech by any means — was written by Aaron Sorkin, whose role as writer and executive producer on “The West Wing” wouldn’t lead you to expect a patriotic movie. The script delivers some important themes,  pleasantly wrapped in humor, whiskey, and rather attractive women.

Tom Hanks plays Texas Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson, and looks remarkably like him as well.  Wilson’s reputation as a hard-drinking, womanizing, and occasionally drug-using bachelor is handled well by Hanks, who portrays Wilson as imperfect (and well-aware of it) but fundamentally honorable and politically street-smart.

The movie begins with Wilson sitting in a hot tub in a Las Vegas “Fantasy Suite” with a sleazy TV producer, a Playboy cover model, and two strippers…all naked, and all drinking, with others nearby using cocaine or other drugs. (The event comes back to him later in an investigation by one Rudy Giuliani.) In the background, Dan Rather appears on the television, doing an undercover report from Afghanistan which has Wilson transfixed despite the obvious appeal of the pleasures available within a few feet of him. Throughout the film, whenever Wilson is drinking or carousing, there is a sense of the blasé, as if he is enjoying the single malt or the woman more out of habit than out of a real sense that it is what he really wants to be doing. (But there is no doubt that he is enjoying.)

Wilson, a little-known Congressman, sits on a Defense Appropriations Subcommittee which is responsible for funding both Defense Department and CIA operations, including covert operations. From that position, and as a savvy pol who collects political IOUs because he “can vote yes a lot”, he has tremendous influence over military and intelligence budgets, a power he is convinced to use to help arm the Afghan Mujahideen in the resistance against the Soviet occupation.

Two people influence Wilson to take on the Afghan-Soviet conflict as Charlie Wilson’s War.  First, Joanne Herring, a Houston socialite and former daytime TV talk show host who was an honorary consul to Pakistan. Herring, portrayed by Julia Roberts, is a tall, rich, big-haired blonde, hyper-confident “6th richest woman in Texas” whose religious fervor (as a reborn Christian) makes her stridently anti-Communist and causes her to support the fight for the Muslim Afghans to be able to practice their own religion instead of being repressed by the godless Soviets. To that end, she arranges a meeting between Wilson and Pakistan’s President Mumammed Zia-ul-Haq.

After a meeting in which Zia and two of his military advisors excoriate the US’s paltry doubling of the Afghan covert budget from $5 million to $10 million (“Is that supposed to be some kind of funny joke?!?”) as well as the CIA, which “missed 130,000 Soviet troops walking into Afghanistan”, Zia has Wilson transported to see the refugee camps at Peshawar. The grim scenes at the camps, including Wilson’s speaking with children who lost limbs and family members to Soviet mines disguised as toys, bring Wilson to the verge of tears and it is at that point where he really makes Afghanistan his cause.  The camp scenes themselves are almost incongruously severe in a movie that is otherwise quick-witted, even glib, while never losing touch with the underlying serious subject.

One of the movies many amusing moments occurs when Herring, after having sex with Wilson, asks “Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?” to which Wilson responds “Tradition, mostly.”

The other important character is Gust Avrakatos, a 24-year veteran CIA agent with a dry sense of humor, a foul mouth, and an unerring eye for what needs to be done.  Avrakatos is played to perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s smart, funny (without necessarily meaning to be so), and particularly unrefined. Indeed, we first meet him when he tells his boss at the CIA to “go f*** yourself” and then smashes the boss’ glass office window…for the second time. While Tom Hanks’ performance is excellent, Hoffman’s is remarkable; he should be a favorite to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

When Wilson asks to meet with a high-level CIA official (“Deputy Director or higher”), it’s Avrakatos who shows up, and the men soon take a liking to each other. After a few conversations, Avrakatos wonders aloud if he’s “met the only politician in town who might be able to make a difference.”

Wilson and Avrakatos work together to select, find, and buy anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry and get it to the Afghan fighters.  Through political maneuvering, vote trading, and calling in IOUs, Wilson gets the budget for his war doubled repeatedly, until it reaches $500 million, an amount matched by Saudi Arabia. In a matter of a few years, Wilson had taken the resources allocated to helping the Afghans from five million dollars to one billion dollars. And with the weapons purchased by that staggering pile of cash, the Soviet Union is defeated.

Another unusual thing for a Hollywood film: a jab at a senior Democrat. When the Chairman of Wilson’s committee loses re-election, John Murtha gets the job.  Avrakatos asks Wilson if the committee will still be malleable and Wilson assures him yes because “I was his vote on the ethics committee” (during the Abscam hearings.)

The movie begins with Wilson receiving, the first time ever for a “civilian”, the CIA’s “honored colleague” award for his singular role in helping end the Cold War. When the movie returns to that scene 90 minutes later, one expects it to be the end. Instead we then go to a Congressional committee meeting room where Wilson is unable to convince colleagues to appropriate $1 million for school reconstruction in Afghanistan. Wilson complains that it is typical of America to leave too early, that $1 million is a wise investment and is nothing compared to what has been spent to rid the country of the Soviets, but the other politicians will not go along.

The movie ends with a quote on the screen: “ These things happened — they were glorious and changed the world…Then we f***ed up the end game.”

It’s tempting to focus on this indictment of America and the implication that the US was responsible for the rise of al-Qaeda. Predictably, many liberal media outlets have focused on this aspect of the movie.  But that temptation is misleading. The movie’s meaning is not simply the message dealt with only in the film’s last few minutes.  At least as important are the film’s direct statements that America intends to side with good rather than evil, that we’re not inherently anti-Muslim, that a person (whether politician or civilian) can make a real difference, and that the Soviet Union truly was evil. “Charlie Wilson’s War” brooks none of the typical Hollywood moral equivalence.

Maybe for this reason voters on (in every age group, both in and out of the US) have rated this movie much more highly than the ugly or boring propaganda of this year’s earlier “war movies”.  Unlike wastes of time and money such as “Redacted” and “Lions for Lambs”, this film does not aim to make American politicians, soldiers, or policy look idiotic, cruel, or criminal. Nor does it make them look faultless. By showing a range of characters from true heroes like Wilson and Avrakatos to petty bureaucrats who argue that “more money and modern weaponry (for the Afghans) will draw attention”, “Charlie Wilson’s War” leaves one feeling that although Americans certainly aren’t perfect, we usually end up doing the right things…even if not fully enough.

For excellent acting, an above-average script, and for showing the good that America and Americans can and often do achieve, especially when focused on true principles, I give “Charlie Wilson’s War” four Uncle Sams.


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