Charlie Wilson

After seeing the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, I took the time this week to read George Crile’s 535 page history by the same title – the book from which the movie was adapted. The book was eminently readable and entirely enjoyable, though the story that emerged was very complex, incorporating quite a few subplots. The question that always comes to mind after such an exercise is what value the book added to the narrative in the film or, put otherwise, what was lost in the film’s necessarily simpler version of the narrative.

Let’s put aside the subplots and concentrate on the main plot of the movie, namely the co-operation between Charlie Wilson, a rogue congressman, and Gust Avrakotos, a rogue member of the US Clandestine Service (the elite of the CIA). Together, they orchestrated massive covert American support for the Afghan mujahedeen who ultimately defeated the Soviets.

The book did two things more effectively than the movie. First, it provided more comprehensive back-stories about both Wilson and Avrakotos. Both men had intrinsically fascinating back-stories. Second, working from Wilson’s point of view regarding Congress and Abrakotos’s regarding the CIA, it painted detailed portraits of the organizational culture and incentive systems in both institutions.

In Wilson’s case, we learn about his relationship with the Democratic leadership, in particular then Speaker Tim O’Neill, and how he was able to accumulate and trade personal capital to achieve his policy objectives. In Avrakotos’s case, we learn how he came up through the ranks in the CIA and, despite his profound difference in background with the WASP private school culture, he was able to achieve great things. In both cases, the book tells us more than the movie about their personal backgrounds, Wilson as a military man who combined virtually unshakeable sex and alcohol addictions with Churchillian idealism, and Avrakotos as a Greek-American with an ambition for public service.

The big difference between books and movies is that books tell and movies show. The movie didn’t have the capacity to go deeply into Wilson’s and Avrakotos’s back-stories. It is the responsibility of the actor to read and contemplate the back-story, immerse himself in the characters (as is done in method acting), and then through all the different aspects of his presentation (voice, facial expressions, gestures, etc.) make us understand, in a profound way, the individual he is portraying. And, after having now read the book, I stick to what I said in my previous post. Philip Seymour Hoffman got Gust Avrakotos spot-on and Tom Hanks missed in his portrayal of Charlie Wilson.

I come away from the book knowing more about Afghan and Pakistani politics, Congressional decision-making, and the CIA’s organizational culture, three disparate but intrinsically interesting bodies of knowledge. And I also come away with a better appreciation of where the movie succeeded and where it failed.

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