I didn't leave Charlie Wilson's War, the new film from director Mike Nichols, dissatisfied or unamused. I walked out of Charlie Wilson's War angry. No reasonable person expects a film -- any film -- to capture the complexity and scope of real events with absolute precision; adaptations are translations, and as the old Italian saying goes, "The translator is a traitor." It's one thing to compress, combine and fictionalize a story to fit the sprawling, ugly mess of it onto the big screen; it's another to take only the best, shiniest parts of a real, ugly story and turn it into a feel-good comedy. Translation may be traitorous, but Charlie Wilson's War feels like a conscious act of treason against reason itself. As film critic David Thompson has said, "We learn our history from movies, and history suffers ...." Charlie Wilson's War isn't just bad history; it feels even more malign, like a conscious attempt to induce amnesia.
Based on George Crile's 2003 book of the same name, Charlie Wilson's War follows the exploits of Charlie Wilson, a Democratic Congressman from Texas who, during the '80s, had as much fun with his position as you could, which was a lot. As Charlie Wilson's War opens, we see Charlie hot-tubbing in a Vegas hotel suite; the room's full of booze, broads and blow. But Charlie, played by Tom Hanks, can't look away from the news; as one of his new acquaintances notes her apathy to world events, Charlie boils it down: "Dan Rather's wearing a turban; you don't want to know why?" Dan Rather's in a turban because Dan Rather's in Afghanistan, among the Afghan mujahideen -- the Islamic rebels trying to drive the Soviet Union out of their country by any means necessary. This sight sparks something in Charlie, so he sets out to increase the C.I.A.'s funding for the Afghan rebels -- from $5 million a year to 10. It's a lot of money. It's going to be much more.