Citizen Action

Charlie Wilson’s Story: How the West (Really)Ended the Cold War

On The Town | Valerie Crawford-Pfannhauser | March 2008

Hanks as Wilson and Hoffman as Avrakotos share a drink

Mike Nichols newest film Charlie Wilson’s War is an experience: So much wit and immediacy are rarely packed into 100 minutes in the cinema. The dialogue sparkles, the characters charm, and the compelling story give a fascinating glimpse into a piece of recent history central to contemporary politics.

For anyone normally sceptical of Hollywood, this sharp-edged political comedy starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, that opened in Vienna in January, comes as a pleasant surprise. The exceptional pacing and dialogue display all the hallmarks of the film’s award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, author of several successful stage plays and the enormously popular TV series The West Wing.

Based on the true story of Texas Democratic Congressman Charles Wilson, the film is adapted from the scrupulously researched best-seller book, Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History (2003), by the late George Crile, one of America’s most distinguished political documentarists.

And while former U.S. President Ronald Reagan is generally accorded much credit for the demise of the Soviet Union, Crile’s book reveals how an unlikely trio of larger-than-life characters actually masterminded the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan behind the scenes, thus helping to bring about an end to the Cold War and the collapse of communism in the 1980s.

The pleasure-loving Charlie Wilson, an ex-naval officer with a penchant for whisky and women, is given a masterful performance by Hanks, splendidly matched by Julia Roberts as Joanne Herring, a rich, much married and well-connected conservative Houston socialite – a sort of Scarlett O’Hara-meets-Dolly Parton and a born-again pragmatist who understands power.

The film really starts firing on all cylinders with the entrance of Maverick CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) as the innovative intelligence man, the son of blue-collar immigrants ever at odds with his Ivy League colleagues. In his shaggy, ‘80s hair cut, moustache and beer belly, he curses and chain- smokes, and there is nothing remotely ‘politically correct’ about him. After a blazing row with his boss over not getting the best assignments, and smashing the boss’s office window (again), Avrakotos goes to Wilson’s office with a bottle of whisky, advising him that it is going to take a lot more money to help the Afghans.

Avrakotos gets some of Sorkin’s best dialogue.

"You’re no James Bond," Wilson tells him,

"Yeah and you’re no Thomas Jefferson, either. Let’s call it even," Avrakotos retorts.  When Wilson asks what the U.S. strategy is, Avrakotos is blunt:

"Most strictly speaking, we don’t have one. But we’re working on it." It transpires that ‘we’ is Avrakotos and three other guys.

Although Wilson loves high-living, women and a good time, it is quickly clear that he has more noble concerns, and possesses a better foreign-policy mind than just about anyone in the State Department. Even in a hot tub at a Vegas hotel, he is more interested by the newsflash on the television about Afghanistan than he is in the naked beauties splashing inches away.

But he is under no illusions about the true nature of politics.

"Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?" Herring asks in frustration. Charlie shrugs.

"Well, tradition mostly," he says dryly.  But he doesn’t let his long-standing attraction for Herring blind him to her intelligence, and she takes advantage of their intimacy to convince Wilson to do what Congress is unwilling to do – help the Afghanis defeat the Russians.

From his seat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Wilson proceeds to quietly increase the government’s unpublicized funding for the Afghans from a drop-in-the-ocean $5 million, to a substantial $1 billion a year and manoeuvres the needed support.

Through their combination of influence, connections, intelligence, cunning and sheer bull-headedness, Wilson, Herring and Avrakotos make a formidable, if unconventional, force for good against Soviet communism. They bring together the money and weapons for the Afghan fight against the Russian helicopter gun ships. Herring uses her connections in Pakistan, Gust arranges an unthinkable deal between the Jewish state and Islamic Pakistan, Wilson globe trots from one action zone to another, using his personal diplomacy and a Texas belly dancer to pull off the deal.

While the film is entertaining, however, this is fundamentally a dark story with a deeply ironic undertone:

"A ball you’ve set in motion can keep bouncing even after you have lost interest in it," Wilson concludes.

We watch Charlie lobby for money to help with reconstruction in Afghanistan to establish shelters and schools. But there is no interest. The U.S. did not "deliver on the end game," he concludes. Ultimately, chaos would ensue from these actions, as the Afghan Mujahideen, armed by the U.S. morphed into the Taliban. By failing to see the consequences of intervention, these events also contributed today’s so-called   war on terror.

"The consequence for America of having waged a secret war and never acknowledging or advertising its role," Crile wrote, "was that we set in motion the spirit of jihad and the belief in our surrogate soldiers that, having brought down one superpower, they could just as easily take on another."

Other articles from this issue