Charlie Wilson’s War, based on George Crile’s book of the same title, is a portrayal of American politics that depicts the wild, yet devoted, Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) and the role he played in the covert Operation Cyclone against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Joining the film’s namesake are Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and CIA case officer Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), forming a symbolic trinity of politician, prominent citizen, and military strategist. Charlie Wilson’s War presents Congressman Wilson and the supporting cast as a microcosm of the characters and political forces required to initiate and execute this covert operation, a technique often employed by filmmakers due to the limitations in scope that the cinematic medium provides.
The film opens with a silhouette of an Afghan man praying in a field beneath stars and a crescent moon. The man stands, turns toward the audience and fires a missile launcher. As the screen is set ablaze, the film’s title appears on screen: Charlie Wilson’s War. Viewers then see a group of covert operatives at a ceremony where Charlie Wilson is being introduced and praised for his role in Operation Cyclone. Following the title character’s introduction, the caption “The following is based on a true story” appears on screen. In addition to these devices, the film uses other techniques to give the audience a sense of a films historicity and authenticity: notably news footage of the Afghans’ war against the Soviet Union, including scenes of CBS journalist Dan Rather in traditional Afghan clothing among the mujahedeen guerillas. During the final act of the film, captions announcing number of Soviet military vehicles destroyed, each year, by the US-backed mujahedeen are superimposed over scenes of destruction.
These devices clearly communicate the film’s historical intention, but several early scenes focus on establishing Congressman Wilson’s complex character for viewers. Wilson is introduced in a hot tub in Las Vegas surrounded by strippers while watching the footage of Rather reporting on the Soviet invasion. This introduction conveys the two faces of Charlie Wilson: the flawed man and the dedicated politician. Throughout the film, viewers are shown Charlie Wilson the sexist, who yells “jailbait!” to summon his young, busty administrative aides, as well as Charlie Wilson the alcoholic, who inappropriately asks President Zia of Pakistan for “a glass of ice with any kind of whiskey” during a meeting in the Presidential Palace, wherein President Zia replies “I’m sorry congressman. We don’t have alcohol in the presidential residence.” Viewers are also privy to the brief affair between [End Page 38] Wilson and Joanne Herring, who encouraged him to meet with Zia as part of her campaign to drum up American support for the Afghan cause.
When Wilson fulfills a promise to President Zia by viewing the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, viewers get a stronger sense of Charlie Wilson, the congressman. This facet of his character is evident in his relationship with Gust Avrakotos. The pair’s quick-witted banter (written by Aaron Sorkin) captures the stranger-than-fiction element of Wilson’s political life and circumstances. Wilson is introduced to Avrakotos during a meeting that might as well have taken place on the Island of Misfit Toys. Wilson constantly asks Avrakotos to excuse him as he and his aides rush to craft a response to rumors of cocaine use; meanwhile, Wilson realizes that Avrakotos has bugged the scotch bottle he presented as a gift. The meeting ends with the two joking about each other’s limitations. “You ain’t James Bond,” the congressman says. “And you ain’t Thomas Jefferson,” the CIA agent replies, “so let’s call it even.”
The film goes on to depict the pair’s attempt to establish covert American support for the mujahedeen, with the congressman wheeling and dealing in the House Appropriations Committee to obtain the necessary funds while Avrakotos strategizes the operational plans with other case agents. The two are shown flying to Israel and Egypt in order to convince the two governments...