“Charlie Wilson’s War” Stretches the Imagination
By Ras H. Siddiqui
How does a US Congressman learn about helping the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Empire in 1980? By watching and listening to Dan Rather on TV while soaking in a Jacuzzi full of young women. From such humble beginnings does a hard drinking Texan decide to make the support of Afghanistan ’s people the cause of his life!
With an initial paltry budget of just $5 million sanctioned in Washington for covert operations in Afghanistan, by the time Congressman Charlie Wilson is done, over $1 billion is found flowing to the Afghan freedom fighters or “Mujahideen” as they come to be known against Soviet occupation. And by the time that General Zia ul Haq of Pakistan’s famous words “Charlie did it” are recorded, the mighty Soviet Army has retreated back across the Afghan border and the rest as they say is history.
The movie starts with a silhouette of a turbaned warrior first in prayer and then proceeding to pick up what appears to be a Stinger missile. An awards ceremony for Congressman Wilson (Tom Hanks) on behalf of America’s clandestine services starts the story and we are quickly taken to the Jacuzzi scene where deals are being made and liquids and other intoxicants consumed. As usual Tom Hanks not only immediately becomes the role but it becomes him (another commanding performance). “Without Charlie, history would have been different,” and without Hanks playing him, this movie would certainly have been different too.
The Congressman seems to have no other pressing engagements and a very satisfied district where the location of a nativity scene being displayed is the most burning issue.
With the very capable assistance of Bonnie Bach (Amy Adams) and an office full of beautiful women called Charlie’s Angels (who could provide serious competition to women in James Bond movies), Congressman Wilson, the flawed patriot embarks on winning a major battle and eventually the Cold War.
But he is not alone. We meet a rebel inside the CIA in the person of Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is indeed quite a character. He yells at his boss, breaks windows, is the loose cannon in all respects, but also seems to understand exactly what the Afghans need and how those needs could be met.
The other interesting element of this story is revealed when we meet socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), the pasty conservative and “Pakistan ’s Honorary Consul in Houston” who has developed quite a good relationship with Pakistan’s General Zia. How this relationship developed we will never know! Joanne explains that a great deal more needs to be done for the Afghans than boycotting the Olympics. She also asks why Congress is not doing anything. Charlie Wilson boils it down to “Tradition mostly.”
Questions are also asked as to why the CIA is running a fake war in Afghanistan and why the F-16 fighters given to Pakistan are not fully equipped? “Go to Pakistan and meet Zia,” says Joanne. “I am one of Israel’s guys on the Hill,” says Wilson elaborating on the fact that helping Muslims may be problematic. But he is finally convinced by Joanne’s charms and does end up in Islamabad meeting General Zia (Om Puri), Brigadier Rashid (Faran Tahir) and Colonel Mahmood (Rizwan Manji). It is an awkward moment when Charlie Wilson asks for a drink at the meeting and is politely told that no alcohol is served. Congressman Wilson is also made aware of the extent of the Afghanistan refugee problem in Pakistan. He is told that what are needed are not outsiders but guns and money. “The arms and the funding should flow through us,” says General Zia, who also requests the Congressman to go to Peshawar to visit the refugees himself. One comment by Wilson, how he was shown his own character flaws by a man (Zia) who hanged his predecessor after a military coup will not go unnoticed. But in the case of the Congressman, the plight of the Afghan refugees, their willingness to resist and the sight of limbless children clinch his support. He was a changed man from then on.
Under investigation because of his “partying ways” Congressman Wilson still uses all his cards in Washington and with the help of Gust Avrakotos and Joanne Herring (plus others) and puts together a formidable weapons supply chain for the Afghan resistance which involves the American, Egyptian, Israeli, Pakistani and Saudi agencies in the process. This modern weaponry certainly helps to turn the tide in the war against the Soviets, finally forcing them to retreat. The largest covert operation in modern history had become a success.
Besides the fact that Gust is no James Bond and Congressman Wilson is no Thomas Jefferson, we encounter several beautiful women, a bugged bottle of spirits and a belly dancer. General Zia being honored in America adds an interesting aspect to the story. Zia did not kill Bhutto, says Joanne Herring. The fact that the explanation arrives much later does leave the viewer perplexed for a while. A small number of other interesting characters certainly add to this film too but Tom Hanks playing Charlie Wilson pretty much overshadows them all.
The negative aspects of this movie are numerous. It turns out to be more of a comedy than one would expect from a topic as serious as the Afghan war against the Soviets, during which there were up to a million casualties (dead and wounded) and several million displaced refugees. The fact that this is a film made for the American audience on a colorful Congressman by the name of Charlie Wilson is not lost to the viewer. The Afghans and the Pakistanis play minor roles here. True to its title it becomes “Charlie Wilson’s War” and not that of the people actually fighting it. An American shouting “Allah Akbar” at an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan seems to be out of place today, but this movie is a reminder of those days.
But one has to add here that the terrible handling of the aftermath of the Afghan war against the Soviets is at least briefly mentioned here in this movie. The concluding language is inclusive of profanity which although quite accurate, is not printable material here. And this movie will certainly encourage young people to be future members of the US Congress. After one witnesses Charlie Wilson having such a good time in this film, anyone would want to become a Congressman.