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. Charlie's desire to help puts him in contact with other like-minded Americans -- like Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a Houston socialite whose born-again Christian beliefs mean she'll support anyone against the Godless communists, and Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a C.I.A. man who's not a company man. Joanne and Gust can't imagine anything worse than the Soviets capturing Afghanistan, and they work with Charlie -- funneling money and arms through Pakistan, working with a motley crew of arms dealers, spies, Saudi billionaires, Pakistan's military dictator and other interested parties. Eventually, the covert funding to help the mujahideen -- with no Congressional oversight outside of closed committees -- was as high as a billion dollars a year in the name of expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan.
And Charlie Wilson's War makes all of that look like great fun -- hard-drinking, glad-handing, sneaky spy stuff. What isn't on screen in Charlie Wilson's War -- but is, interestingly enough, in Aaron Sorkin's script -- is any mention of the fact that the Afghan mujahideen became the Taliban, or how the Afghan mujahideen were helped in their cause by the "Afghan Arabs" who later became Al-Qaeda. Sorkin's original script closes with an older, wiser sober Charlie on a Washington morning shattered by a sudden loud noise; something's burning at the Pentagon. His phone rings, and Charlie's wife says "It's Gust. He says to turn on the TV."
In the version of the film actually shot, our finale is a closing quote from Charlie, noting how his team got the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but " ... we f***ed up the endgame." And no, I am not saying that Mr. Wilson's actions led to 9-11; but I am saying there's a link, and any reasonable student of history would agree. But there are fewer and fewer students of history nowadays; more people will see this film than will ever read Crile's book. And rest assured, I hate the "'Blame America First" crowd as much as anyone; the only thing I hate more, in fact, is the "Blame America Never" crowd. Yes, Charlie Wilson's War notes that Wilson and his crew goofed up the 'endgame'; what it doesn't quite acknowledge is that to thousands of Afghans who suffered under the Taliban and the armed forces of America and her allies in Afghanistan, it wasn't, and isn't, a game.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a brutal violation of international law; a grown-up would nonetheless ask if our cure was in fact better than the disease. Charlie Wilson's War doesn't. (Again, a line in Sorkin's script -- but not in the final film -- has Avrakotos noting "Remember I said this: There's gonna be a day when we're gonna look back and say 'I'd give anything if (Afghanistan) were overrun with Godless communists.'") There is one scene, at the climax of the film, where Gust confronts Charlie at their victory party -- about declaring Afghanistan in safe hands, warning him that there may be unintended consequences of their efforts, even slapping the drink out of Charlie's hands -- so you know Gust means business. As Wilson thinks, the soundtrack offers the slow, droning roar of a low-flying plane. And that choice can't be accidental; it has to be a 9-11 reference, but at the same time, plenty of critics I've talked to (including a 20-year veteran of the field) literally didn't notice the sound effect. There's subtlety, and then there's invisibility. Nichols offers us champagne-sparkle charm and whimsy and aw-shucks hijinks; if a film really wants to tackle the covert actions of the Cold War and their long-term consequences, it needs to provide short sharp shots of truth as raw as whiskey, one after the other. We get the buzzy, boozy, bonhomie of Charlie's crusade; what Nichols has done is eliminated the historical hangover of unintended consequences. Charlie Wilson's War is timid where it should be reckless, clever where it should be cutting, funny where it should be fierce.
I haven't really spoken about the performances in Charlie Wilson's War, because they're largely irrelevant. Hanks is mis-cast as a Texan; Roberts is, as always, herself; Hoffman gets to rage and chew scenery, but his character's deeper doubts are shoved off-screen for wacky globetrotting adventures and well-dressed pluck on the part of Hanks and Roberts. Reading Sorkin's script, I couldn't help but think that again, big Hollywood had turned a sharp-toothed, snarling real story into a neutered, nuzzling housepet. Charlie Wilson's War offers the bright glare of star power instead of any real illumination; it's a historical-political comedy without any history or politics. Nichols's cut, gutted version offers a few cheery, breezy moments of rat-a-tat comedy, but Charlie Wilson's War stops being funny when you realize we're living in the sequel.