Charlie Wilson’s War *** ½ (out of ****)

Director: Mike Nichols
Writer: Aaron Sorkin based on the book by George Crile
Cast: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Amy Adams, Om Puri
Rating: R (language, sexuality/nudity, drug use, and helicopters exploding)
Running Time: 97 min
Release Date: 12/21/07

As I awaited the release of Charlie Wilson’s War over the past few weeks, I was a somewhat puzzled by what Hollywood was up to this time. Now its all clear, you see Ronald Reagan didn’t win the Cold War, it was this little known Democrat congressman from Texas who did it! It turns out that the book was written by a long time producer for CBS’s 60 Minutes known for its liberal slant. So things are much clearer now. In following I’m just going to take the movie at face value except for some closing comments.

Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was congressman from the Texas 2nd District who was hardly a model of political virtue. His financial support was largely out side his district. He had numerous affairs and was under investigation by Rudolf Giuliani for cocaine use. He was a notorious heavy drinker, probably an alcoholic, and his staff consisted of a group of hot babes known as “Charlie’s Angels”.

While hot tubing with a TV producer and strippers in Las Vegas one evening, he was distracted by a report on the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion by Dan Rather. It so happened that his “selling to the highest bidder political strategy” had placed him on some key committees, including the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Following up on the news reports he found that the CIA budget for Afghanistan was only $5 million and decided to double it. Given the small amount involved and the fact the Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill had just placed him on the Ethics Committee to protect Rep John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who had become involved with the Abscam FBI sting, a small request of that type was no issue.

This move supporting the rebels didn’t go unnoticed. A wealthy right-wing lady from Texas, named Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), invited Wilson to a party at her mansion. She had been an honorary counsel to Pakistan and knew President Zia (Om Puri) personally. She was working to get support of Afghan resistance and arranges for Wilson to travel to Pakistan to meet President Zia and tour the refugee camps. Shocked by the horrors suffered by the refugees and a very disappointed by a CIA briefing, he returned to Washington requesting a high-level meeting with CIA. Instead they sent over Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour-Hoffman) a low-level CIA officer (GS-11) who is working the Afghan issue with “three other guys”. While initially apprehensive, Wilson and Avrakotos soon find common purpose in the cause.

The story unfolds as a humorous account of how the trio of Wilson, Herring, and Avrakotos manipulate the system to arrange for Pakistan, Egypt, and Israel to work together funded by U.S. and Saudi money to arm the Afghan’s in their fight against the Soviets. I found it a very funny and fast moving film. There are certainly many humorous scenes including Wilson asking for whisky in the Pakistani presidential mansion, a Baptist belly dancer performing for Egyptian officials, and Zai agreeing to take the arms from the Israelis as long a there wasn’t a star of David on the crates as just a few examples.

This leaves aside the big question of just how true is this story? It is very clear that Wilson did have a pivot role it getting the ball rolling in the Afghan operation and was central player throughout. Throughout most of this time the Senate was controlled by the Republicans and President Reagan was very public with his support of the Afghans. Someone must have been pushing for this on the Senate side as well. Joanne Herring has a website: www.joanneherring.com with alink entitled “Movie” that has a picture from that period with Rep. Wilson on the left, Ms. Herring in the middle, and the late Sen. John Tower on the right! Perhaps there is more to this story? All that aside, we can certainly salute Charlie Wilson as a great patriot.


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