It’s hard to imagine a political film, let alone one that deals with events that lead directly to 9/11, as being all that funny. “Charlie Wilson’s War” pulls it off though, and manages to make covertly arming the Afghani mujahedeen seem like a zany lark. Until, of course, the last reel.
“Charlie Wilson’s War,” directed by the always good Mike Nichols (everything from “The Graduate” to “Closer”), traces the true story of U.S. congressman Charlie Wilson, a party-hearty, womanizing Democrat from rural Texas. This guy managed, almost single-handedly, to direct massive military aid to Afghan guerrillas resisting the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s.
Wilson is played by Tom Hanks, and if his usual image is a bit too Mr. Nice Guy to make him a natural fit for the role, he does bring the sort of easy charm that allowed a borderline-alcoholic congressman to cajole his colleagues into approving huge budget allocations for a covert war.
We first meet Wilson in a hot-tub with a shady businessman and some coke-snorting strippers. Why this dissolute legislator wound up becoming the champion of Afghan liberation is never really made clear — there’s no St. Paul on the road to Damascus moment — but the impetus was clearly Joanne Herring (played by Julia Roberts in a ridiculous hairstyle, even by ’80s standards.) Herring was a wealthy Texas heiress who had rabid anticommunist views and was liberal only in the amount she donated to Wilson’s election campaigns. She used her time in bed with the congressman — literally — to persuade him to increase aid to the mujahedeen, and to visit Pakistan’s leader, Gen. Zia (Om Puri), to learn more about the war next door. What this says about how policy gets made in Washington remains unspoken. (Need I mention that Wilson became a lobbyist for the Pakistani government after retiring from Congress?)
The film gets even better when Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up as Gust Avrakatos, a surly, blue-collar CIA operative who’s sick of being sidelined and wants to kill some commies. Hoffman, looking every bit the part in his ’70s-guy mustache and aviator glasses, steals every scene, whether he’s trashing his boss’ office and screaming profanities, or matter-of-factly outwitting defense ministers and arms dealers.
When the Afghani guerrillas received antitank and antiaircraft weapons through the back channels Wilson and Avrakatos created — would you believe Israel, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan all cooperated on it? — Soviet losses mounted quickly. The Soviets pulled out in ’88, and within a few years, the Soviet Union was no more.
The film gives Wilson credit for much of this, and while it may be an exaggeration, it’s certainly a bit frightening to think how few people managed to push through this world-shaking policy. The budget for covert operations is classified, so Wilson — who was on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense — could put stuff in there and most of Congress wouldn’t even know what they were voting for.
It’s also fascinating to see what a politician could get away with in an era before political correctness. Wilson’s aides are all buxom beauties known sarcastically as “Charlie’s Angels,” about whom he says “They can learn to type but they can’t grow tits.” (More than a little jarring coming out of the mouth of Hanks.) Wilson, who bore the nickname “Good Time Charlie,” also survives a cocaine scandal and wins re-election handily. As he puts it, all his constituents care about is low taxes and the right to bear arms. (A comment that would get Barack Obama crucified these days.)
It’s worth nothing what didn’t make it into the film — Wilson was also an enthusiastic supporter of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza; his love of freedom, like so many cold warriors, only extended to those repressed by the Soviets. Avrakotos helped overthrow a democratically-elected Greek government that was replaced by a military junta.
And not mentioned even once is Avrakotos’ boss, crotchety CIA Director William Casey. This Reagan appointee organized a terror campaign in Afghanistan which involved U.S. special forces teaching advanced car-bomb techniques to Pakistan’s intelligence services, who went on to teach the mujahedeen. The results of this are still playing out today in Baghdad and Kabul.
None of that is very zany, though.
Casey, for his part, viewed Islam and Christianity as natural allies in a fight against godless communism; history has borne out how shortsighted an idea that was. “Charlie Wilson’s War” makes a lot of noise near the end about Avrakotos urging Wilson to tone down the religious aspect of the conflict, particularly Herring’s Christian-right rhetoric.
“America doesn’t fight religious wars,” he says. “That’s why I like living here.”
A nice sentiment for a film to endorse. Not necessarily the history, though.