Charlie Wilson's War (12/21/07)
It has all the ingredients of a great satire. A hard-drinking Congressman,
a gorgeous Texas socialite, and a grumpy CIA agent team up for hijinks
and heroics, and together manage to bring down the Soviet Empire.
But Charlie Wilson's War, the entertaining new film by Mike
Nichols, isn't a satire. It's based on the true story of the largest
covert operation in history, when the CIA secretly spent billions
in funding the Afghan mujahedin in their defeat of the Soviets in
the 1980s, a defeat that probably helped accelerate the end of the
Soviet Union. Here's the history behind the film's larger-than-life
characters, and stranger-than-fiction plot.
Q. Can CIA involvement in Afghanistan really be traced back
to Texas socialite Joanne Herring?
A. That's the contention of journalist George Crile, the author
of the bestselling book on which the film is based. According to
Crile, Joanne Herring (played here by Julia Roberts) set the CIA
funding into motion through her close friendship with Congressman
Herring was charming, beautiful; a fixture on the Houston social
scene. But her real passion was geopolitics, particularly the anti-Communist
variety. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Herring embraced
the Afghan "freedom fighters" as her cause, and used all
her considerable charm and connections to get them aid from Washington.
Charlie Wilson, who converted into an equally fervent supporter
of the Afghans under Herring's encouragement, became her conduit
Q. But Wilson's just one Congressman. How could he get so much
A. Mostly because he was on the Defense Appropriations Committee.
That small group controls the CIA's entire budget, a budget conveniently
hidden from the public, and even from Congress. So with no debate
or fanfare, Wilson could quietly oversee dramatic increases in funds
to the Afghans, from $5 million a year in 1979 to $500 million ten
Q. Was Charlie Wilson really so scandal-prone, or did the film
A. The press dubbed him "Good Time Charlie" for his unabashed
boozing and womanizing. Tom Hanks lays on the charm in his portrayal
of Wilson, and the more egregious sins of the Congressman get glossed
over a bit. We don't see him snorting cocaine, for instance, and
there's no mention of the drunken hit and run accident he had just
before his first visit to Pakistan. "I got off easy,"
the actual Wilson remarked after seeing the movie.
But as the film shows, Wilson did come under suspicion for cocaine
use. And heading the Justice Department investigation into that
charge was then-famed prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani.
Q. Did Wilson really staff his congressional office with young,
A. He did. His staff became known as "Charlie's Angels"
on Capitol Hill. When questioned about this practice, Wilson liked
to respond with this politically incorrect line: "You can teach
them how to type, but you can't teach them to grow [breasts]."
Interestingly, though Amy Adams plays Wilson's administrative assistant
in the film, the congressman tended to hire men in that position.
Q. Did Gust Avrakotos, the CIA agent who worked with Wilson,
really get demoted for insulting his superiors?
A. That part is true. A working-class Greek-American, Avrakotos
hated the Ivy League snobbery among the CIA elite, and wasn't shy
about expressing his feelings in rather colorful language. His bluntness
lost him a plum position in Europe, and led to his landing in the
Q. Did Avrakotos first meet Wilson on the day Wilson learned
he was being investigated?
A. It's one of the funniest scenes in the film, as Wilson's meeting
with Avrakotos (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman with a funky mustache)
keeps getting interrupted by Wilson's secretaries bringing ever
more dire news of the cocaine investigation. But the two men actually
met long after, when Wilson approached the CIA to inquire about
better weapons for the Afghans.
Q. How effective was the CIA assistance to the Afghans?
A. Enormously effective. With an ever growing budget, Avrakotos
and Wilson helped funnel huge amounts of sophisticated weaponry
to the Afghans. Most valuable were the Stinger missiles, handheld
anti-aircraft missiles which could bring down the Soviet helicopter
gunships. Introduced in 1986, the Stingers helped turn the tide
of war toward the Afghans.
Yet the covert nature of this operation was so effective that most
Afghans - or Americans for that matter -- never knew about the heavy
commitment by the U.S. in helping the Afghan guerillas take down
the Soviet Union.
Q. Once the war ended, did Wilson start pushing for Afghanistan
to get money for schools?
A. This part's a bit fudged. While Wilson did push for humanitarian
aid, he also kept the military aid and weaponry flowing into the
country, even two years after the Soviet withdrawal. In the meantime,
Afghan warlords began fighting with one another, laying further
waste to their already devastated country. And more ominously, militant
Islam was on the rise in Afghanistan, attracting radicals from around
the region, all emboldened by the seemingly miraculous victory of
the mujahedin. And in this new jihad taking shape, America would
become as much the enemy as the Soviet Union.
But fortunately, the film ends before all those messy, unforeseen
consequences can unfold. In fact, Charlie Wilson's War is an upbeat
film. You'll find yourself cheering with Charlie and his friends
when lowly Afghan peasants finally begin shooting down Soviet helicopters.
So, enjoy. And try to ignore those pesky clouds on the horizon.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University
of St. Francis in Illinois.