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Review of 'Charlie Wilson's War'

By Lisa Pease
December 20, 2007

What do you get when you mix a cocaine-snorting playboy Congressman, the sixth richest woman in Texas, and a blue-collar CIA officer with a huge chip on his shoulder? Why, the largest covert operation in history, and a hilarious, award-nominated film about it.

“Charlie Wilson’s War” has been billed as a political satire or comedy. While the film ripples throughout with truly hilarious moments, it is based on the true and very serious story of the largest covert operation in history.

The film depicts how Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a Democratic Representative from east Texas, was inspired by a Dan Rather broadcast, a newswire story, and the allure of the glamorous and fervently anti-communist socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) to fund Afghanistan’s ultimately successful resistance against its Soviet invaders in 1980.

Wilson teams up with Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a renegade CIA officer whose own career hangs by a thread due to his anti-authority outbursts, to supply sophisticated arms and training to the mujahideen.

The film opens with Wilson receiving a specially created “Honored Colleague” award from the CIA operatives in Near East division, where a simple sign hangs saying, “Charlie did it.” This real event marked the first time the CIA had honored someone outside the clandestine services and welcomed them as one of their own. 

How did this flamboyant Congressman earn the trust of the CIA, in an era just following the post-Watergate, post-Rockefeller Commission investigations of the CIA by congressional committees led by Frank Church in the Senate and Otis Pike in the House? By helping the CIA get the funds they didn’t even think they wanted, at first, to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Based on the book of the same name by the late “60 Minutes” producer George Crile, the script, under the sure hand of “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin, crackles with Sorkin’s trademark wit.

Some scenes have been invented, such as the truly madcap first meeting between Wilson and Avrakotos (a scene resembling a French farce or a “Three Stooges” skit).

But many scenes depict actual events, such as when Wilson brings a daughter-of-a-Baptist belly dancer to Egypt to entertain the Muslim Egyptian defense minister, proving that not only is truth stranger than fiction, it’s often a great deal funnier.

Like the real-life Wilson, the fictional version uses his womanizing, hard-drinking persona as a front, hiding his more capable side.

Wilson’s best defense against his bacchanalian ways is not to deny it, but to flaunt it, defusing any of the heat that might have built up in the press over his outrageous behavior. His outer persona is so gossip-worthy that his other actions go all but unnoticed.

Who else but such a backroom operator with a highly developed sense of humor could convince the leaders of Pakistan and Israel to work together to secretly arm the Afghans?

The real star of the film is the script. That Sorkin managed to tell so serious a story in so entertaining a manner should earn him a number of awards.

The actors deliver the goods as well. Hanks’ comic timing is as brilliant as ever. Roberts is indeed, as Wilson calls her in the film, “Helen of Troy,” inspiring powerful men through her beauty and--shall we politely call it--“southern hospitality” to get with her program of freeing the Afghan people from the godless menace of the communists.

But it is Hoffman’s spot-on portrayal of the quintessential CIA operative, half crude bluster and half savvy erudition, that steals the show, and should earn him an Oscar. He storms into the film like an angry elephant, and when he’s in a scene, it’s difficult to put your attention anywhere else.

There’s a serious set of lessons to be learned behind all the hilarity, however.

The first is that, when covert actions are authorized and paid for in secret, we’re not really functioning as a Democracy. The public didn’t know what Charlie Wilson and the CIA were doing, so they had no way to vote people into or out of office to shape that policy.

And if supporting the Afghans was so clearly the right thing to do, why did it have to be done in secret? We went to war in Iraq for far less, overtly.

While the film itself does not entirely connect the dots from the Afghan effort to the events of 9/11 and beyond, enough clues are laid down for any thinking person to do this for themselves.

In the earliest screenings of the film, there was a scene at the end that made the connection explicit, but the filmmakers realized the film was more powerful when people came to a realization regarding the connections on their own, and removed that extra scene at the last minute.

The events depicted remind us dramatically how the path to hell really is paved with good intentions.

Each of the major characters made their choices based on the dictates of their consciences, with temporarily wonderful but ultimately disastrous results. Even if one wins a war, the next step is to win the peace. As history has shown us dramatically, we failed to do that, twice now, in Afghanistan.

Will the film help future generations avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? To quote from a Zen master story featured in the film, “We’ll see.”

“Charlie Wilson’s War” opens December 21. Don’t miss it.

Lisa Pease is a historian who has studied the JFK assassination and other enduring political mysteries.

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