In February 2010, as I was browsing one of my online news sites, I came upon an obituary of a retired American politician. Charles Nesbitt (Charlie) Wilson, a former 12-term congressman from Texas, had died at age 77.
Charlie Wilson’s well-known penchant for women, alcohol, and parties had earned him the sobriquet “Good Time Charlie.” He remained popular in his district, however, because he consistently kept in touch with his constituents and worked very hard on their behalf.
Despite his frequently unconventional public behavior, Charlie Wilson had a very big secret he kept from all but a few of his closest friends. “Good Time Charlie,” the hard-drinking, womanizing, party-going congressman from Texas, was a key player in the covert war that helped defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
Charlie Wilson’s secret was very well-kept for many years… that is, until the release in 2007 of Charlie Wilson’s War, an altogether excellent movie that recalls his exploits in the covert war against the Soviet Union’s forces in Afghanistan.
Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, is political comedy at its best. It’s fascinating, funny, fast-paced, has high production values, and is very well acted by a strong ensemble cast. Charlie Wilson’s War was directed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Angels in America), and written by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing).
The movie opens in the late 1980s. We find “Good Time Charlie” (Tom Hanks) in a Las Vegas hot tub with two gorgeous, bare-breasted young movie starlets and their agent. There’s plenty of booze and cocaine present at the scene. While he and his friends are talking, his eye catches a TV news story about Afghan freedom fighters (Mujahedeen) fighting against their Soviet occupiers.
When he returns to Washington, Charlie decides to use his power as chairman of a secret House Appropriations subcommittee to covertly fund five million dollars’ worth of arms and equipment for the Mujahedeen. His decision, although intended to be classified, doesn’t remain a secret for very long…
Charlie is soon approached by two people who want him to do more than simply send a few million dollars to Afghan freedom fighters. Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) is a beautiful and wealthy Texas socialite who’s also a fervent anti-communist, promoter of conservative causes… and Charlie Wilson’s occasional lover; Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a CIA agent “in the doghouse” with his superiors, is overseeing covert operations in Afghanistan. They try in turn to persuade Charlie to go to the Middle East and discover for himself the need for much larger American participation in the fight against the Soviets.
Charlie agrees and sets off for the Middle East with Bonnie Bach (Amy Adams), his beautiful and thoroughly capable administrative assistant, who’s also trying to convince him to do more to help the Mujahedeen. After conferring with Middle Eastern leaders, Charlie tours some refugee camps along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is visibly moved by what he sees and comes away convinced that the United States must indeed provide the Mujahedeen with much more badly needed arms and equipment.
The remainder of Charlie Wilson’s War chronicles Charlie’s efforts to bring all the necessary players – most critically the powerful House Appropriations Committee chairman – into the picture. Will Charlie Wilson be successful in waging his covert war against the mighty Soviet army in Afghanistan…?
Charlie Wilson’s War is a political comedy, and a very good one at that! Director Mike Nichols, ably abetted by Aaron Sorkin’s first-rate script, could have opted to make a very serious film about a heroic American politician fighting against his political foes in order to achieve a worthy objective. I think a film like that probably would’ve been pretty good… and pretty dull. But by putting a comic twist on an otherwise serious subject, Nichols created a lively, interesting, cleverly written, cheerfully told, and completely fun-to-watch story about the unorthodox Charlie Wilson and his exploits.
The actors and their performances are all first-rate. With an ensemble cast that includes Academy Award winners Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, brilliant performances are expected… and brilliant performances are delivered. Every character is perfectly portrayed by this group of consummately professional actors. Charlie Wilson’s War must’ve been a lot of fun for the actors to make; the strong chemistry between cast members shines through every scene.
As good as this movie is, it does have two significant flaws. The battle scenes between the Soviet army and the Mujahedeen are amateurishly produced and detract from the overall quality of this otherwise fine film. The other flaw is more egregious: nowhere in Charlie Wilson’s War is the role of the President of the United States mentioned. Ultimately, it was the chief executive, and not Charlie Wilson, who had the constitutional authority to approve covert operations in Afghanistan. Charlie Wilson rightfully deserves the credit he gets for what he did, but I think it’s wrong to leave the impression that he, a congressman, was alone responsible for the “largest covert operation in history.”
MY VERDICT: Despite its flaws, Charlie Wilson’s War ranks as one of my favorite films of recent years. It’s fast-paced, funny, and fun to watch. First class entertainment all the way!
Charlie Wilson’s War DVD case information