In a party scene toward the end of Charlie Wilson’s War, Rep. Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), who led the drive to arm Afghan rebels against the Soviets in the ’80s, celebrates the USSR’s pullout while his key C.I.A. partner, Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), stands on a balcony outside the gathering, worrying about the country’s future. Charlie urges Gust to enjoy the moment, but Gust soberly relates a Buddhist parable about a Zen master, a boy and a horse. Gust had previously tried to tell Charlie the story but was always interrupted; its message is that in life—unlike fiction—just when you think a tale has reached a definitive conclusion, it will suddenly go somewhere else.
(The Zen Master would say, Maybe, just wait.) Although Gust is happy that the Soviets are out of Afghanistan, he rightly bemoans that without a dedicated reconstruction effort, the place will become magnet for radical Islamic nuts. Charlie had previously resisted taking the meaning of Gust’s story, maintaining that he was just a dumb Congressman from Texas; but after accomplishing so many great things with Gust, the parable’s significance sinks in. In the film’s final few minutes, Charlie tries to score a fraction of the Congressional funding earmarked for the war effort and funnel it into reconstruction, only to be told that nobody cares about schools in Pakistan. (That’s how uninterested Wilson’s colleagues are; they can’t even get the name of the country right.) The final pre-credits title card quotes the real Charlie: “All these things happened, and they were glorious and they changed the world. Then we fucked up the endgame.”
Coming at the end of an efficient, briskly-paced 97-minute film, this ominous note seems tacked on and strangely ambiguous: an inspirational story about how one man can change the world switches gears to show how easily good works can be undone. For the first 93 minutes, the hard-partying “Goodtime Charlie,” as he’s known inside the Beltway, slips through the capital’s bureaucratic web faster than a greased pig. When Gust recommends a certain obscure expert who will help them choose the best weapon to provide to the Afghans, Charlie has already picked up the phone and started dialing; how Charlie knows who to call or how to reach him is not made clear. Later, when Charlie needs to sway the influential Chairman of the subcommittee on Foreign Operations of the House Appropriations Committee, Doc Long (Ned Beatty), to side with him on supporting the Mujahadeen, he just grabs the phone again and gives a shout-out to conservative Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), and lickity-split, she’s calling him back to say it’s all arranged. Yet when the time comes to rebuild Afghanistan, Charlie smacks against that same bureaucracy as if it’s a cold stone wall. At that point, one man can’t make a difference.
I half-kid on this distinction because I think I understand the larger point that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and probably the CBS producer and correspondent George Crile, the late author of the source book, are trying to make: Americans may eagerly agree to go into a country and remove a dictator or a regime, but they have no interest in sticking it out to repair that society, and their speedy exit leaves a vacuum that’s sure to be filled by the next bad guy. This notion is certainly present, but it’s not developed, and what’s there appears to have been minimized (as per The Washington Times) after Wilson, Herring and former Reagan administration officials objected to implications in an early version of the project that the United States funded Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, leading to the attacks of 9/11. While there are hints that the freedom fighters in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan are the same parties that the U.S. military would confront decades later, they play like nagging afterthoughts. It’s as if the editors were unable to remove this thread without turning the film into a clueless period piece, yet lacked the footage necessary to really drive the point home.
What remains is a black comedy with an upbeat, politically nondenominational message: that one man, with the help of a small band of supporters, can be a catalyst for change. Sorkin has a leftward pedigree and based the script on a story by a journalist for CBS—a longtime focal point of conservative complaints about liberal media bias—the final result is admirably fair, especially for a story that’s so intimately concerned with government bureaucracy and the two-party system. Still, when critics such as Roger Ebert accept the film as a history lesson that sets the record straight on Ronald Reagan’s anticommunist legacy, they misrepresent its nature. Charlie Wilson’s War bears as much relation to Reagan-era U.S. foreign policy as They Died With Their Boots On did to the saga of General Custer. It’s a pared-down, simplified tale that’s not interested in other accounts or key players, and it tends to blur the details of who supplied what to whom, and when. Sorkin and Nichols should be praised, however, for their depiction of Soviet barbarity in Afghanistan. The horror is illustrated through the testimony of Afghan refugees in Pakistan (as interpreted through Pakistani officials) and, more strikingly, through glimpses of Soviet helicopter raids. The film’s most unsettling images—apparently a mix of documentary footage and simulations—are from the point-of-view of cameras installed in the cockpits of Hind gunships, the boxcar-sized choppers that unleashed destruction on Afghan villages, incinerating homes and mowing down individuals with impunity. This sober and horrific footage accounts for maybe two minutes of the movie’s running time, but it explains exactly why Charlie chose this quest: because he believed liberating Afghanistan was the only humane thing to do.
If the film succeeds in illustrating the moral and political stakes of Wilson’s quest, it fails as a character study, offering a predictably soft version of a character who, by all accounts, was more off-putting in life—a debauched womanizer and reputed cocaine user who, until his involvement in the Afghan effort, was better known as a rascal than an ideologue. The movie depicts Charlie Wilson as the one-man wrecking ball that brought down the Soviet empire, and casts the role with a superstar who could make Charles Manson lovable; as further insurance, Sorkin’s script conspicuously avoids showing Goodtime Charlie having a really good time. The Wilson whose playboy lifestyle has been detailed in advance publicity is mostly AWOL onscreen. Wilson is surrounded from start to finish by sexy women, but his mind stays focused on the Afghan problem. If he’s in a hot tub with two young ladies, his attention is fixed on a CBS news report about the Soviet occupation; a naked babe rubbing against him on a couch can’t distract him from a phone conversation with Herring about the Afghan plight. (The only time Charlie is more preoccupied with sex than Afghanistan is when he’s in Herring’s company.) As for allegations that Wilson snorted cocaine, one scene shows him in a room where it’s in use, but it’s clear that the coke isn’t his. Except for a brief mention of Wilson using cocaine outside of the United States, he seems drug-free; he even declines a gal pal’s offer of a joint, indicating his drink. (Wilson almost always has a drink in his hand, but the movie presents this as a morally neutral character quirk; decades worth of Hollywood movies have conditioned viewers to equate shots of whisky being sipped out double ol’ fashion glasses with hard business deals.)
If anything, Nichols’ film paints Wilson as excessively studious. The reliably charismatic Hanks plays Charlie as a knowledgeable congressman with a righteous aim and a steadfast devotion—qualities that I don’t doubt were aspects of the real Wilson’s character. That Wilson stocks his office with young females and surrounds himself with naked women after hours is presented as immaterial compared with his geopolitical accomplishments. The movie also makes the ethics charges brought against Wilson seem unconvincing and portrays his chauvinism as indirectly as possible; the script’s crudest line, which addresses why he hires young women instead of some men (to paraphrase: because you can teach a secretary to type but you can’t teach it to grow tits) is related third-person by a woman. A recent story about the movie in the Denton Record-Chronicle bore the headline, “Charlie Wilson, star of ’War,’ says film does him justice.” No shit.
As Gust, the gruff, profane, black sheep C.I.A. agent with an unshakable passion for the task at hand, Hoffman brings wit and imagination to a character with fewer dimensions than Wilson. The Good Agent Lost In An Incompetent Bureaucracy is a type that’s been done countless times before, but I think it’s now a scientific fact that you can give Hoffman a wig and glasses and a bushy moustache and he’ll deliver a sidesplitting performance; I haven’t the slightest clue what the real Gust Avrakotos was like, but I can’t imagine that he made abrasive crusading so funny. As Herring, Roberts has less to work with than Hoffman and registers a bit more flatly. Her sassy socialite could have been the highlight of the film, but Nichols and Sorkin never seem to know quite what to do with her; she holds up her end of the story and has a few good lines, but at no time did I forget I was watching Julia Roberts in a blond wig. And the film’s conception of Doc Long is too clownish; when stands before thankful Afghans as their deliverer, he seems more a buffoon than a man genuinely concerned for their cause. All of these touches are consistent with the film’s apparent wish to be a simplistic, feel-good retelling of a remarkable event. On those terms, Charlie Wilson’s War is a success.
Jeffrey Hill is the managing editor of The House Next Door and the publisher of Liverputty.