By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 29, 2007)
Aaron Sorkin, you silver-tongued devil, you had me at: “Ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community…”
That line is from the opening scene of Charlie Wilson’s War, in which the titular character, a Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) is receiving an Honored Colleague award from the er-ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community (you know, that same group of merry pranksters who orchestrated such wild and woolly hi-jinx as the Bay of Pigs invasion.)
Sorkin, (creator/writer of The West Wing ) provides the smart, snappy dialog for Mike Nichols’ latest foray into political satire, a genre he hasn’t dabbled in since Primary Colors in 1998. Nichols and Sorkin may have viewed their screen adaptation of Wilson’s real-life story as a cakewalk, because it falls into the “you couldn’t make this shit up” category.
Wilson, known to Beltway insiders as “good-time Charlie” during his congressional tenure, is an unlikely American hero. He drank like a fish and loved to party but could readily charm key movers and shakers into supporting his pet causes and any attractive young lady within range into the sack. So how did this whiskey quaffing Romeo circumvent the official U.S. foreign policy of the time (1980s) and help the Mujahedin rebels drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, ostensibly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War?
He did it with a little help from his friends- a coterie of strange bedfellows including an Israeli arms dealer, a belly-dancing girlfriend, high-ranking officials in Egypt and Pakistan, a misanthropic but resourceful CIA operative, and “the sixth-richest woman in Texas”, who was a fervent anti-communist.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman continues his track record of stealing every film he appears in. He plays CIA operative Gust Avrakotos with aplomb. His character is less than diplomatic in the personality department; he becomes a pariah at the Agency after telling his department head to fuck off once or twice. Through serendipity, Gust falls in league with Wilson and one of his lady friends, wealthy socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts).
Once they unite, the three are a sort of political X-Men team; each with their own Special Power. Joanne has influence with high-ranking Middle East officials, and can set up meetings; Charlie can talk just about anybody into anything; and Gust can get “it” done, especially if it involves cutting corners and bypassing the middleman. Once Joanne lures powerful congressman Doc Long (the wonderful Ned Beatty) on board, the deal is sealed.
The film doesn’t deviate too much from the facts laid out in George Crile’s source book; despite inherent elements of political satire, it’s a fairly straightforward rendering. What is most interesting is what they left out; especially after viewing The True Story of Charlie Wilson, a documentary currently airing on the History Channel.
One incident in particular, which involved a private arms dealer “accidentally” blowing up a D.C. gas station on his way to a meeting with Wilson and Avrakotos, seems like it would have been a no-brainer for the movie. The History Channel documentary also recalls Wilson’s involvement with a (non-injury) hit and run accident that occurred on the eve of one of his most crucial Middle-Eastern junkets (the congressman admits that he was plastered).
I think it’s also worth noting another tidbit from Wilson’s past that didn’t make it into the movie-but I think understand why. Allegedly, the randy congressman once had “congress” with a TV journalist named Diane Sawyer. Yes, that Diane Sawyer, of 60 Minutes fame. That same Diane Sawyer who is married to (wait for it)…director Mike Nichols. It’s all part of life’s rich pageant.
A final thought. After the film’s feel-good, flag waving coda subsided and the credits started rolling, something nagged at me. There was a glaring omission in the postscript of this “true story”; I will pose it as an open question to Mssrs. Nichols, Sorkin and Hanks:
So tell me-exactly how did we get from all those colorful, rapturously happy, missile launcher-waving Afghani tribesmen, dancing in praise to America while chanting Charlie Wilson’s name back in the late 80s to nightly news footage of collapsing towers and U.S. troops spilling their blood into the very same rocky desert tableau, a scant decade later?
Let’s see you spin that story into a wacky romp starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.