Wars create heroes and Hollywood loves to make movies about them. Typically the heroes are soldiers, not politicians in smoke-filled rooms who bankroll wars.
But in the mostly true Charlie Wilson’s War, a charming libertine of a Congressman who appropriates secret CIA funds for the 1980s Afghanis’ defense against the Soviet invasion, makes for a fine hero and for a good movie— so long as the audience doesn’t ask too many questions about the long game of U.S. foreign policy.
Tom Hanks effortlessly and entertainingly portrays Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, a low-profile, high-living womanizer who, through the prodding of a wealthy donor, finds himself concerned about something other than his re-election.
Without enough preface in the film to make it believable, Joanne Herring (underwhelmingly played by Julia Roberts), a fervent anti-Communist evangelical Texas belle with brains, enlists Charlie’s help to supply the Afghan “freedom fighters” with modern arms to fight the Soviet Army’s far superior war machine.
At that time, the United States’ official position was that the conflict as an intra-Afghanistan affair and hope the “freedom fighters” could slowly grind down the Soviet invaders, irrespective of the Afghanis’ horrendous casualties and the geopolitical implications of the Soviet Army’s advancement through Afghanistan toward the oil-rich Middle East.
Charlie’s visit to an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan filled with maimed and wounded children touches a chord and rouses him to action. These scenes are heartbreaking, particularly a long shot of thousands of refugee tents extending as far as the eye can see.
After finding no help from the CIA leadership, Charlie meets street-smart maverick CIA agent, Gust Avrakotos, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose superb performance is a sheer pleasure to watch. Hoffman’s acting talent seems limitless. He completely submerges his persona and morphs into his character, unlike Hanks and Roberts.
Though almost too unbelievable to be true, Charlie and Gust convince the members of Charlie’s pivotal Congressional subcommittees to ratchet up the CIA’s Afghanistan budget over a number of years from Five Million Dollars to Two Billion Dollars. The two then use the money to finance the purchase of weapons from otherwise warring Middle East countries and funnel them to Afghanistan through Pakistan.
The film ends soon after the Soviet army withdraws from Afghanistan. Charlie is awarded the CIA’s highest civilian medal and hailed as a hero for helping to end the Cold War; and perhaps he should have been considered a hero in 1988. We cannot know what our world would be like if the Soviets had conquered Afghanistan.
But the aftereffects of the United States’ role in training and arming what later became the Taliban is only briefly raised at the end of the film as we see Charlie unable to convince his subcommittees to aid a post-war peaceful Afghanistan, and Gust, in his best world-weary fashion, quoting Zen philosophy.
The story of Charlie Wilson’s War makes an engaging and amusing film. Aaron Sorkin’s scriptis literate, intelligent, well-written, fast-paced and full of clever and cynical one-liners. The shortcoming of the film is that it presents a slice of 1980s history without addressing the more serious future implications of the U.S.’s involvement. It’s as if we were watching a humorous buddy/heist film, rather than an account of American foreign policy and its blunders.