Should we Fight in Charlie Wilson

Always searching for new material for my narratives courses, I just viewed the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War. The film was directed by Mike Nichols with a screenplay by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by George Crile. While the movie got great reviews from top critics including Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli, I’m not convinced that I want to use it.

The story, in brief, involves Charlie Wilson, a Democratic Congressman from Texas, who revels in the opportunities for personal vice (sex, booze, and cocaine) provided by his political celebrity. Indeed the movie begins with him in a Las Vegas hot-tub, snorting with two strippers. Good-time Charlie, as he was called, also recruited an entirely female office staff, with attractiveness and immodesty essential criteria. With a supportive district, Charlie was at liberty to follow his ideological interests, one of which became the cause of the Afghan mujahedeen who were struggling against the Soviet Union in the Eighties. Charlie was able to work the system – in particular the lack of public oversight for CIA spending – to dramatically increase US military aid to the mujahedeen, in particular to enable them to buy Russian anti-aircraft weapons, funneled through Israel and Pakistan. This increase in their military capability enabled them to drive the Soviets out, and contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union. Wilson had the help of Joanne Herring, a right wing Houston socialite with political connections, and Gust Avrakotos, a rouge CIA agent.

The movie, produced by Jeffrey Skoll’s Participant Productions, has its trademark “feel good” narrative arc, with the reason for feeling good that the evil Russkies, who bombed defenseless villagers and deliberately killed Afghan children, were ultimately defeated. But the movie ends with the bitter irony that, despite all the money Charlie was able to find to support mujahedeen resistance, he couldn’t convince his colleagues to provide any funding for reconstruction after the war. The additional back-story, not touched upon in the movie, is that the mujahedeen ultimately evolved into the Taliban.

Charlie Wilson was an unusual politician. He was a mixture of libertine and zealot, able to shift effortless from personal decadence to political machinations, and to succeed at both. In that, he resembles Jack Kennedy. (Bill Clinton too had that skill but in a time less likely to cut politicians slack for their peccadilloes he got caught). In a previous generation, the obvious actor to portray Wilson would have been Sean Connery who, as James Bond, could shift effortless between decadence and espionage. Tom Hanks was, in part, miscast: he certainly fits the political zealot side of Charlie Wilson, but the decadent side is against his type.

The movie should have downplayed the Participant Productions standard “stand up and cheer for the good guy” narrative (for example, Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck and Josie Ames in North Country) and dwelt more on the unintended consequences of Wilson’s success at providing covert American support for the mujahedeen.

The reviewers appreciated the movie’s fast pace and humor, and particularly liked Philip Seymour Hoffman as the rogue CIA agent. I didn’t care for a narrative that inadequately addressed the situation that evolved after Charlie Wilson’s original action and that didn’t give appropriate attention to the paradoxes and unintended consequences of his political zealotry.

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