PFS Film Review
Charlie Wilson's War


Charlie Wilson's WarOn April 6, 1980, Texas Congressman Charles Wilson (played by Tom Hanks), while nude in a Vegas hot tub and imbibing whiskey, watches a Dan Rather news story from Afghanistan in which an Afghan woman wonders why the Americans are not helping her people to defeat the Soviet military advance. When he returns to Washington, he reads an Associated Press newswire story about the scale of the Soviet genocide in Afghanistan. Nine years later, the Soviets leave Afghanistan in retreat, primarily due to Wilson’s efforts. In a masterful portrayal of the best and worst of Congress and the CIA, director Mike Nichols brings to the screen the story of that effort from George Crile’s Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History (2003). Wilson explains his entry into politics at the age of 13 as providing transportation to 96 African Americans to defeat a city official who killed his dog. From a district that wants nothing from Congress, he has been in office since 1973, reelected through funding from seven Jewish constituents; accordingly, he fails to support a constituent’s desire to protect a nativity scene at a Lufkin firehouse from an ACLU lawsuit. Unmarried, his staff consists of luscious females. Having graduated from the Naval Academy near the bottom of his class, with a record number of demerits, he nevertheless became an expert on Soviet nuclear capabilities while in the Navy, made friends in Congress, and landed on the right committee to fund covert operations. The film focuses on early pressure from an attractive, rich Houston socialite, Mrs. Joanne Herring (played by Julia Roberts), whose trips to view the Afghan refugee camps in Peshawar have convinced her that the Afghans are prepared to fight the Soviets but just need weapons to do so, whereas a trip to her bedroom persuades Wilson. Soon, he is off to Pakistan, to a meeting arranged by Herring with President Zia (played by Om Puri), after which he visits Peshawar and learns that American policy is to avoid antagonizing the Soviet advance lest they are provoked into World War III. When Wilson returns, he lobbies his committee chair, Doc Long (played by Ned Beatty), who agrees to increased funding after a trip to Peshawar. However, the one who pressures him most is CIA officer Gust Avrakotos (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who ignores the CIA's rule against lobbying Congress. Later, the new committee chair, John Murtha, ups the ante that was initially $5 million to the mujahedeen warriors to $1 billion, with Saudi Arabia providing half. Murtha’s support is an exchange of a favor, since Wilson voted to support him in an ethics investigation, and Wilson logrolls support from many of his colleagues by promising to vote for their pet projects. To ensure that no American weapons will be involved, Avrakotos takes Wilson to Egypt and Israel, where there are secret stockpiles of Soviet weapons; along with others purchased covertly from European manufacturers, they are shipped to Pakistan to be supplied to the mujahedeen. Much of the film lionizes the numbers of various Soviet aircraft downed during 1987. At the end of the film, Wilson tries to raise $1 million to build schools for post-Soviet Afghanistan, an appropriation suggested by Avrakotos as a way to ensure that younger Afghans will be pro-American. His lack of success is summed up in a closing credit as “We fucked up the endgame,” an understatement indeed, given subsequent events in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fast-paced film contains many epigrams and humorous lines, with a screenplay by The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin. The Political Film Society has nominated Charlie Wilson’s War for best film exposé and, for a depiction and description of the horrors of the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan, best film on human rights of 2007. MH

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