Based on a true story, and the book Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History by George Crile.
Director: Mike Nichols
Writer: Aaron Sorkin (screenplay)
Rated: R for nudity and graphic violence
Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson
Julia Roberts as Joanne Herring
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos
Charlie Wilson's War is a film about United States congressman Charlie Wilson (representing the 2nd congressional district of Texas) and his involvement in the US response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the United States was worried but didn't do too overly much about it, according to the movie the CIA had a pitiful $5 million budget for providing weapons and training to the Afghani people.
Charlie Wilson, living high on the hog with strippers, cocaine, and free-flowing alcohol at all hours of the day, took a bemused interest in the war himself but didn't really give much thought to getting personally involved until his friend and sometimes lover Joanne Herring (the sixth richest woman in Texas) contacts him and points out that he was sitting on every major congressional committee that had the power to do something. To drive home her point, she pulls some political strings and arranges a meeting with the president of Pakistan, the bordering country where sick, wounded, and angry Afghani refugees have been pouring in.
His visit to Pakistan cements the reality of the situation in Charlie Wilson's mind. After an embarrassing meeting with Pakistani president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq that demonstrated how little he knew about — and how little the United States was doing about — the situation, he agrees to visit the Afghani refugee camp. Besides the children who were mutilated by finding booby traps and unexploded munitions, he discovers that the Afghanis were dying in the face of superior weapons and technology, but they weren't scared and cowed, they were fighting mad and only wanted the weapons they would need to stand a chance.
This turns Charlie Wilson around, and he makes it his personal mission to get the influence, information, and backing he needs to increase the CIA budget to help the Afghani people. The person who can help him with this is monotone, abrasive, scene-stealing Gust Avrakotos, an under-appreciated CIA agent who understands the situation, knows the right people to talk to, and doesn't have anything else to do at the moment since — as the son of immigrants — his boss doesn't trust him enough to give him any important assignments despite his 25 years of loyal service with the agency.
What Charlie brings to the table is his own natural charm, and he's got it in spades. He knows how to talk to the people who can help him, and mediates the differences between the Israeli, Saudi, Afghani, and Pakistani politicians and arms dealers who can make things happen (you can't, of course, fight the Soviet army with dollar bills). Over the course of the rest of the movie, Charlie makes sure the mujahideen fighters are supplied with heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down helicopters, anti-aircraft guns to shoot down strike fighters, and anti-tank rockets to destroy battle tanks and armored personnel carriers, and steadily increases the CIA's budget to provide the ammunition and training necessary to use them. By the end of the movie, the United States and Saudi Arabia, together, were supplying $1 billion to fund the Afghani military, which was the largest covert operations budget ever.
The Soviet position in Afghanistan steadily weakens as the Afghani fighters get better armed and equipped, until their rate of attrition becomes so high that they are forced to cut their losses and leave the country. But Gust and Charlie know that the US involvement can't end there, the young, isolated, and poorly-educated survivors of the invasion need help rebuilding their country and they need to know the United States helped reconstruct what the Soviets destroyed. Unfortunately, with the major US interests accomplished, public interest quickly wanes, the CIA's budget for the region is annihilated, and the United States essentially abandons Afghanistan once it no longer has anything to offer. The message being, of course, that this eventually leads to the Taleban-lead Afghanistan that harbored terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, resulting in the United States becoming directly involved in a new war in the historically violent country.
A thoroughly enjoyable movie on all levels, Charlie Wilson's War manages just the right mix of history and entertainment, with highly effective, emotionally impacting scenes of the brutality of the invasion and the reactions of the Afghani people in the face of what at first appears to be an unstoppable war machine, and then becomes an enemy that can be fought and beaten. Tom Hanks is enjoyable as always, impressively fun to watch as the hedonistic congressman who turns his priorities around once he has something to believe in. Julia Roberts is Julia Roberts in the role of Joanne Herring, for whatever your opinion is of her. And Philip Seymour Hoffman steals the movie in his supporting role as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos. The three of them have great on-screen chemistry together, and the movie manages to slip in just enough humor to keep things from getting dull without compromising its message.
The emotional impact of the Soviet-Afghani battles was, to me, the foundation the movie relied on. In the beginning, the Soviet Hind helicopter gunships were portrayed as death given form from the air. They were able to move into an area quickly and rain fire and destruction with impunity on anyone on the ground. They were essentially invulnerable to the small-arms fire the Afghani troops had and their weapons were horrifyingly effective. Charlie immediately recognized that the single most effective blow the Afghanis could strike would be to knock the helicopters out of the air, resulting in the movie's pivotal scene in which three soldiers destroy three helicopters with US-supplied heat-seeking missiles, taking the Soviet pilots (who had developed a cavalier, punch-clock attitude to their raids) completely off-guard.
My only complaint was the use of stock footage in certain parts of the movie. While it was undoubtedly necessary to show the air drops and actual war footage that meant things were really happening, the transition from Hollywood-sharp modern camerawork to the in-field shot stock footage was jarring, and left me with the feeling that the more professional-quality portions of the film were excessively polished and, ultimately, make-believe. Re-shooting the footage with models or CGI probably wouldn't have been appropriate, I think the best way to have handled this would have been to present the stock footage as videos being shown to Charlie and Gust, so they knew where their money and effort were going. This would have excused the contrast in film quality while still showing the real footage.
Overall, I highly recommend Charlie Wilson's War to anyone who likes recent history, political drama, or Tom Hanks. Four out of five stars.