Charlie Wilson's War
Special to The History Place
Charles Nesbitt Wilson, aka Good Time Charlie, served the Second Congressional
District of Texas from 1973 until 1996. Reputedly a hard-drinking womanizer,
Charlie Wilson is remembered in a couple of books, and as of Friday,
December 21st, in a new Mike Nichols films mainly for funding covert
arms to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. In the summer of 1980, while
California Governor Ronald Reagan was making his second bid for the
White House, Wilson reportedly read an Associated Press story about
Afghan refugees fleeing into Pakistan to escape slaughter by the invading
Russians. In the film, Wilson visits a refugee camp, where the children-amputees,
in particular, move him into action.
That action, as a member of the House of Representatives Defense Appropriations
Subcommittee, was to double the CIA's "black ops" funds for
the Afghan resistance. If Wilson was the Mujahedeen's Lone Ranger, his
Tonto was CIA operative Gust Avrakotos, the son of a Greek-immigrant
soda manufacturer from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. Avrakotos aggressively
lobbied Congress for his cause, the defeat of the Russians. His tactic
was simple: arm the resistance with Stinger missiles. The math, as Tom
Hanks, portraying Wilson, points out to his subcommittee colleagues,
is just as simple: a Soviet aircraft costs something in excess of $20
million; a Stinger costs something less than $70 thousand. Go figure.
The Charlie Wilson-Gust Avrakotos partnership stands on its own as
the stuff of great buddy/adventure films. What makes the Mike Nichols
take on their enterprise highly entertaining is the satirical way in
which Director Nichols tells their tale. The film opens with Wilson/Hanks
in a Las Vegas hot tub with naked showgirls. Throughout the film Hanks
and co-star Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Avrakotos) exchange quips and jibes
ala Crosby and Hope in a 'Road' movie. For Dorothy Lamour, substitute
Julia Roberts. Roberts portrays Joanne Herring, a born-again rich girl
from East Texas, who sleeps with Wilson, raises funds to bring down
the Soviet Union, is the Honorary Consul to Pakistan, and refers to
the Congressman's all-female staff as "sluts."
The humor in Charlie Wilson's War is welcome in the wake of
a long series of grim post-9/11 films I've reviewed which include several
about the fateful day itself, as well as Spielberg's gory and morally
ambivalent Munich, and such cynical works of film-fiction as
Syriana and The Kingdom.
Still, Nichols never lets us stray too far from the realities of war
and real politics. Charlie Wilson is not the only one whose eyes fill
with tears at the sight of Afghan toddlers lacking limbs, because they
picked up devices they thought were toys. One refugee-camp worker tells
the Congressman, "The Russians know that it's harder to deal with
a wounded child than a dead one." And so, the implication runs,
better to scatter small explosives, that sever arms and legs, rather
than lethal mines.
Upon the Soviet evacuation of Afghanistan, Avrakotos, ever the realist,
savors the ultimate victory at a party thrown by Wilson only briefly,
before cautioning the Congressman that a Soviet-free Afghanistan must
be rebuilt. Gust tells his sidekick in a balcony scene, the party in
full flare behind them, that the radical fundamentalists are moving
into the political vacuum left by the Russian retreat.
In the end, Wilson is depicted struggling ineffectively to pry a million
or two from his subcommittee to rebuild Afghan schools. "We always
leave," he complains to his colleagues' deaf ears. Did Wilson really
say that? Did he really see what was in store for a liberated Afghanistan?
Or are Nichols and Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin, who scripted
the film, exercising poetic license with 20/20 hindsight?
No matter, Charlie Wilson's War, ends the laughter and elation
of victory with the ominous foreshadowing of the Taliban terror in the
offing. The look on Charlie Wilson's face, as his Congressional colleagues
decline to invest so much as a measly million in the Afghan infrastructure,
is reminiscent of the look on Dustin Hoffman's face at the end of the
Nichols classic, The Graduate. Hoffman, having just run off with
the love of his life, sits with her at the back of a bus, her groom
and half her wedding party panting along behind them. Both Hanks and
Hoffman tell filmgoers, "There's worse to come."
I can recall reading back in 1969 a magazine article speculating about
what that look might have meant for Hoffman's graduate: the military
draft, criminal charges of one sort or another brought by his girlfriend's
fiancée and their families, financial destitution. With regard
to Afghanistan no such speculation is necessary. Uncle Sam is there
today and is likely to remain there for the foreseeable future, finishing
the job only half accomplished by the vanquishing of the Soviet army.
A final note: Almost as intriguing as the film itself are the video
clips included on the movie's official Website. These include snippets
from a 1988 60 Minutes profile of the real Good Time Charlie,
firing a machine gin and riding horseback in native costume on the Pakistan-Afghan
border, as well as bits from Courage Is Our Weapon, the propaganda
film produced by Joanne Herring in 1981.
Charlie Wilson's War may rekindle the controversy about how
big a role he, and for that matter Ronald Reagan and the "Reagan
Doctrine" of opposing the Soviets everywhere, played in the crumbling
of the Evil Empire. But the 60 Minutes and Courage clips
attest to the fact that Wilson, Herring, and Avrakotos were real-life
Cold Warriors extraordinaire.
Rated R for strong language, nudity/sexual content
and some drug use.