Charlie Wilson's War

Posted on: 03 January 2008 by Justin Avery (squiz)

1980s anti-communists are brought to the screen by a top class cast in Mike Nichols' latest film.

What makes a hero? A person who selflessly and courageously puts his life on the line for others or someone who is willing to take the ultimate gamble diplomatically to achieve the impossible?

Charlie Wilson was in the latter category, the unlikeliest of heroes. With his 6' 4" frame, booming voice, quick wit and infinite charm, he had a way with women (he employed a team of beautiful assistants), helped by a love of whisky and an occasional sniff of cocaine. Scandal seemed to follow him everywhere, but as he was so affable, Wilson always managed to dodge any damage. And of all the events occurring in 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan seemed least likely to appear on his radar.

Wilson's outrageous true life tale of international intrigue and global politicking is now the subject of Mike (The Graduate) Nichols's absorbing new film Charlie Wilson's War, released on 11th January 2008 nationwide, based on George Crile's best selling book.

Charlie Wilson was a bachelor Congressman from Texas whose 'Good Time Charlie' personality masked an astute political mind, deep sense of patriotism and compassion for the underdog. In the early 1980s, with the looming advance of a Russian invasion, that underdog was Afghanistan.

Charlie Wilson's War - Julia RobertsHis long-time friend, frequent patron and sometime lover was Joanne Herring, one of the wealthiest women in Texas and a virulent anticommunist. Believing the American response to the invasion was anaemic at best, she prodded Charlie into doing what no one else could: secure funding and weapons to eradicate Soviet aggressors from their land.

Charlie's partner in this uphill endeavour was CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, a bulldog, blue-collar operative who worked in the company of Ivy League blue bloods, dismissive of his talents.

Together Charlie, Joanne and Gust travelled the world to form an unlikely alliance between Pakistanis, Israelis, Egyptians, lawmakers and a belly dancer. But their success was remarkable - and certainly most modern day leaders and politicians could take a leaf out of Charlie's book. Over the nine-year course of the occupation of Afghanistan, United Stated funding for covert operations against the Soviets went from 5 million to 1 billion annually, and the Red Army subsequently retreated from Afghanistan.

Nichols proves here he hasn't lost his touch as one of the foremost American film makers of his generation, achieving a strong sense of authenticity, aided by a sharp, cynically funny script and tight editing. The film, nevertheless, does have its drawbacks - I would like to have known more about the characters as the story seems rather clipped and certainly the 95 minutes running time too short. But I found myself really engaging with the characters and sharing their predicaments.

Of course Nichols is helped by having a top class cast - Tom Hanks, also the film's producer, seems perfect as the larger than life protagonist of the title - an individual not unlike Bill Clinton, while Julia Roberts as Herring, the Houston socialite who loved a good cause, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the shrewd, hothead CIA agent Gust Avrakotos are equally splendid. Also a final word of praise for veteran Indian actor Om Puri who makes a most convincing Pakistani President as Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.

By Laurence Green

You can watch the trailer here.

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