The question is, if you're going to make a political movie based on a true story, how "true" do you have to be, and is it fair play to make such a film that works as purely entertainment, even if you fudge the facts a little? There are two things going on within Charlie Wilson's War, which stars the affable Tom Hanks as the title character, a liberal Democratic congressman from Texas with an affinity for single-malt scotch whiskey and women. The first thing is an entertaining story about a good ol' boy from Texas, a hard drinking skirt-chaser who, if we're to believe Hanks' take on the character, wasn't so bad, really. Oh, maybe he called his staff of sexy, all-female all-stars "jailbait," drank heavily, and partied in Vegas with Playboy models while surrounded by cocaine, but heck, y'all, that doesn't make him a bad guy, does it? Shoot, he's just a rascally sort, and after all, he's from Texas, where the good ol' boys are, so that makes it all okay.
But, okay, let's toss that aside and say that in spite of his flaws, he really did, underneath, care about his job, at least enough to look up from the nekkid women in the hottub in the first scene of the film long enough to notice that Dan Rather is wearing a turban, and astute enough to realize it might be interesting to know why. The second thing that's happening in Charlie Wilson's War is the story of what happened after Wilson gets interested in Afghanistan: In the summer of 1980, Wilson reads a dispatch about the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet invasion; Wilson, newly appointed to the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, casually orders the CIA funding for Afghanistan doubled from five million to ten million, and presto, it's done. But not quite finished.
Enter Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) a Houston millionaire and socialite on a Christian mission to rid Afghanistan of those pesky godless Commies, at any cost. Herring uses her friendship and feminine wiles to persuade Wilson to go to Afghanistan to meet with the country's president and go to the refugee camps to meet and talk to the Afghani refugees about their plight. Wilson does, he's appropriately horrified by what he sees and learns, and when he finds out that what the Afghanis really need is the ability to shoot down the helicopters the Soviets are using to mow down Afghani civilians, he sets out on a mission to get the CIA funding for Afghanistan increased to arm the mujahideen rebels so they can fight back.
Wilson is joined in his quest to rid Afghanistan of the Soviets by a not-so-by-the-book CIA guy, Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his third excellent performance of 2007), and before you can say, "Hey, should we maybe think this thing through a bit?" Wilson has spearheaded increases in funding for Afghanistan to a billion dollars, arming the Afghanis with rocket launchers and other nifty weapons of war to aid them in fighting back against the Soviets. It's at this point that the film starts to get a little fuzzy on the facts -- into whose hands are Wilson and the CIA funneling all these weapons? Who's handling the distrib, and making sure they're not going to guys who might later bite the very hand that's feeding them?
Other stories, like this excellent on on Alternet, have gone into considerable detail on the folks who actually got most of the weapons we funneled into Afghanistan, and 9/11 showed us part of the devastating fallout of the decisions that were made back in the 1980s. Director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin, who adapted the screenplay off of George Crile's biography of Wilson, rather gloss over this aspect of the story (although Sorkin's script reportedly was more open about it than the final cut, I've not read the script myself, so I'm relying on reports from those who have read it about that); the question is, in bypassing those details, does the film do a disservice to all that really happened for the sake of making what's supposed to be a somewhat satirical take on the events surrounding Afghanistan?
I suppose it depends on your point of view. Was it a bad thing to help the Afghani people rid their country of the Soviets, who were mowing down women and children with helicopters and putting bombs in toys? Sitting here in 2007, it's easy enough to armchair-quarterback the decisions that were made back in the 1980s, and connect all the dotted lines that led to 9/11 and the Iraq war, but at the time Wilson and Avrakotos were funneling money to Afghanistan, could they have been prescient enough to foretell those future events? The truth is, in politics, alliance shift and change over time. Governments and regimes topple and are replaced by new regimes that are sometimes better, sometimes worse. Two other films right now, The Kite Runner and Persepolis, have great perspectives from within Afghanistan and Iran, respectively, that show the impact on the lives of ordinary people of the shifts in political winds. Charlie Wilson's War isn't telling its story from the perspective of now, it's telling it from the perspective of the knowledge Wilson and his cohorts had back in the 1980s. This story is about the politics of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which made any strike against the Soviets seem to be a wholly positive thing; the later impact of those decisions is the irony underlying the story, but it's not the main storyline.
You can make the argument, of course, that we should have known better, that we should have better controlled into whose hands we were putting those weapons, made more certain that the people who were our friends one day wouldn't be our enemies the next. You could argue, too, that we we should have done something to prevent the rise in power of the Taliban once we helped get the Soviets out -- but how? Should we have gotten into an endless occupation of Afghanistan the way we have Iraq, to ensure that the leadership that took over was who the United States wanted? Could we have prevented, back then, all the events that led us to 9/11? We have rather a habit of looking without leaping, of not seeing the forest for the trees, and in this case, as they say at the film's conclusion, we screwed up the endgame.
As for the the movie as it is, Hoffman's performance is by far the highlight of the film, and he owns every scene he's in without chomping everything to bits. Hanks is a nice enough guy in real life (or at the very least, he does an excellent job of creating that impression) that it's easy enough to buy him as a good ol' boy with good intentions, though I don't see this as an Oscar-nom worthy performance for him. Roberts does quite well here as the socialite determined to rid the world of Communism, (though I'm still hoping for her to recreate the magic she had onscreen in films like Erin Brockovich). The dialog snaps, the pace is quick, and the film overall plays rather like a two-hour West Wing retro episode, which is not a bad thing from the perspective of the viewer.
The thing is, while movies can and do mark history, to a degree, they're also entertainment, and Charlie Wilson's War largely succeeds on that front. This is not a documentary, it's a narrative story based on true events, and it's intended to be not so much a comedy as a satire. The film could have gotten into a more specific outline of to whom we gave which weapons and what was done with them, and whose hands they ended up in, and what the endgame was in greater detail, but that would have been a different film entirely, more documentary-disguised-as-satire, and that's clearly not what Nichols and Sorkin were aiming for.
The idea at the heart of Charlie Wilson's War, as I saw it, was to say, look: This is how our government tosses billions of dollars into military operations, some of them covert, and the people doing that aren't necessarily thinking ahead to the long-term impacts of the decisions they make, and not just in the 1980s, but now. In Afghanistan, it wasn't just that we screwed up the endgame, it was that, much like the current war, we simply didn't have one at all, beyond "let's get the damn Soviets out of there now." Decisions were made with that singular goal in the crosshairs, much as our government continues to make decisions on the world stage, and then, as now, no one;s looking at what the fallout might be. And therein lies what lesson there is mixed in with the entertainment; whether you think Nichols and Sorkin do an adequate job of teaching it, you'll have to judge for yourself.