It is not easy to take a wealthy socialite, a powerful Congressman, and a CIA agent, have them played by three Oscar-winners, two who are genuine box office gold, and make them look like the underdogs, but in this “extraordinary story of how the wildest man in Congress and a rogue CIA agent changed the history of our times” (as put in the unusually accurate book subtitle), that is what they are.
Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was a U.S. Naval officer turned Democratic Congressman from Texas. He did not seem to take much of anything very seriously and was better known as “Good Time Charlie,” the party animal with an office staffed with long-legged lovelies known as “Charlie’s Angels” than for any political position or achievement. But he had some things going for him. He was smart. He was underestimated by just about everyone. He had a gift for getting people to do what he wanted. And he had something almost no one has, in Washington or anywhere else. He had a secret, bottomless bank account. He served on a Senate Committee that had authority over the “black ops” budget of the CIA.
We meet Charlie in a Las Vegas hot tub, surrounded by lovelies and many mood-enhancing substances. But an episode of “60 Minutes” about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan catches his eye. When he gets back to Washington he doubles the budget for American support of the Mujahideen, the Afghani resistance. To $10 million.
That will swell to over $300 million. At the urging of a fabulously wealthy — and just plain fabulous right-wing Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and with the guidance of misfit, semi-rogue CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, they use that money to arm the Mujahideen so they can fight the Soviets.
It’s like an episode from the original “Star Trek,” as though people from outer space on a planet where a war is going with one side using tanks and bombs and the other using rifles and slingshots. Wilson was motivated in part by the sheer lopsidedness of the fight. But like Herring, he was also motivated by the opportunity to humiliate and bankrupt our Cold War foe, the Soviet Union, to make Afghanistan for them as un-siege-able as they were for Napoleon and Hitler. The invasion, part of a long history of Soviet-Afghanistan involvement, was in part a response to what the Soviets saw as heightened US presence in the region, following the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
And like a good “Star Trek” episode, there’s a painful lesson about hubris and good intentions. The Mujahideen defeated the Soviets with the help of anti-aircraft weapons bought with American funds from a coalition of the strangest possible bedfellows. But the destruction and chaos of the fight made the country vulnerable to the rise of the Taliban.
Director Mike Nichols (Primary Colors) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The American President, A Few Good Men) and their stellar cast hit a high-gloss tone of near-farce that perfectly sets off the sheer insane audacity of the undertaking, somewhere between The Dirty Dozen and Duck Soup .
Sorkin’s fast, smart talk perfectly captures the smart, self-aware characters who like to pretend they can hide how much they care. Wilson may have access to the money and some, well, weapons-grade mad skills in Washington wheeling and dealing. But he has a few obstacles to handle. First, there’s a little matter of some pending allegations that he used cocaine, both a legal and a political problem. There’s a scene of flat-out, slamming-doors farce as Avrakotos keeps getting ushered out of the room so that Wilson can confer with his “Angels” on a statement responding to the cocaine allegations. It just gets funnier as the Angels are understatedly utterly professional and competent, even the one Wilson calls “Jailbait.” And it becomes one of the best scenes of the year when Avrakotos provides a topper I must let audiences discover for themselves.
As if that is not enough, second, his plan will require the cooperation of the Israelis, Pakistanis, and Saudis. Millenia have gone by without anyone figuring out how to have these countries talk to each other. Somehow, through a combination of ignorance, chutzpah, and that wheeling-dealing ability, Wilson pulls it off.
Every element of this film is brilliantly done. It works as drama and satire, as pure entertainment and illumination of history. Most important, it works as a more effective commentary on current world events and our political system than any of the recent films attempting to take on American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan more directly.
Parents should know that this film has very strong language, sexual references and situations, nudity, drinking, smoking, drugs, some debauched partying, and disturbing images of wartime/battle violence and scenes of survivors, including children with missing limbs
Families who see this film should talk about the ways Wilson worked within the system and in what ways he had to go outside. What made him so effective? Would you vote for him? Why or why not?
Families who enjoy this film will enjoy the best-selling book by George Crile and other fact-based Washington stories like All the President’s Men and the fictionalized Advise and Consent. They will also enjoy Aaron Sorkin’s television series set in the White House, The West Wing. Be sure to check out the DVD extras, including an interview with the real Charlie Wilson.