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The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001
by Steve Coll
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"Charlie Wilson's War"
Those of us who were old enough to remember the Russian attack on Afghanistan in the 1980s, with TV anchorman Dan Rather embedded with the Moujahadeen and broadcasting news from the battleground in the dashing native uniform, will appreciate this little-known sidestory of how the ill-equipped warriors found themselves in the possession of advanced arms that helped them defeat our mutual enemy.
It's safe to say that this same "old-enough" group will find fascinating the title of the book it's based on, "60 Minutes" producer George Crile's Tom Clancyish expose' of our government in inaction: "Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times." This sounds so colorful and exaggerated, you might think it fiction. But, it's not.
Talk about some of the characters who manage to win a post in congress... the Texas congressman we're zeroing in on here, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks, "The DaVinci Code"), was a larger than life (6', 4") liberal, fervent anti-Communist, popular, whiskey connoisseur, junkie who loved the back room bartering and flinging his sway around for righteous causes. When you consider that Mike Nichols ("Closer") directed from a dialogue-brilliant screenplay by Aaron Sorkin ("A Few Good Men," "West Wing", TV), you have to believe that the stars were aligned when this piece was put together. There are no filmmaking mistakes or excesses to be found in this war story wrapped in comedic satirization.
On the scale of improbabilities, Wilson's teaming up with renegade CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Greek immigrant of humble origins who blew into the agency when it was a harbor for Ivy League elitists. The guy's smart, boisterous and unable to enter a room without exhausting all the oxygen, a characteristic that doesn't work too well with his direct boss at Langley, but which gives Charlie all the boost of adrenalin he might need. Not that there's any lack of it in his natural state.
The problem America is facing in the Afghani war is the possibility of the Russians winning and widening their strategic reach, considering the overmatch in weaponry, is becoming more likely every day. Besides fixed-wing aircraft, the ground warriors have only World War I rifles against the Soviet's Mi-24 helicopter gunships. Though American leaders were reveling in the Moujahadeen doing its dirty work by battling the Russians, it was felt to be politically troubling to provide overt support. The thinking was that no Afghani fighters could be found with American-supplied weapons. Until "Good Time Charlie" rose to the occasion.
His first coup was to double the budget that had been approved by Congress. But though this "feat" indicated Charlie's power with his committee comrades and chairman, it was a mere increase of five million dollars. If this swinger with an office full of beautiful women (one of which he summons with, "jailbait!") didn't realize the futility of the money boost, his new associate, Gust, leaves no room for doubt.
Gust, realizing Charlie's rare thinking about what the U.S. should be doing in terms of the war and his pivotal position in Congress, suspecting that he's more astute and caring about geo-global issues than his lifestyle would suggest. He, in fact, may be his only ally, and want to hook him up with a new set of ideas. Charlie, readily agrees to an on-the-ground tour of the actual war devastation followed by a meeting with Pakistani General Zia-Ul-Haq (Om Puri) and his officers. Out of a new level of awareness, Charlie forms the far-out and far-sighted idea to procure a little-known but ample armory of modern rifles from Israel and the famed and unerring stinger missiles.
Much of the humor in the tale comes from Charlie's handling of his two passions and the juggling it predicates. A scene out of a Shakespearean farce (or a Mike Nichols one?) plays out when Gust is asked to wait outside Charlie's office for a staff update on his drug case, only to be readmitted and to be shoved out again, and again. The capper of it, played briskly by Hoffman and Hanks, is a juicy payoff worthy of Keaton.
Again, Nichols has all cylinders cooking with this stuff, especially with the flow of zingers by Sporkin delivered in rapid fire exquisiteness of expression. And Hanks is in his usual excellent form, giving the title character an entirely credible vitality, endowed with questionable morals, charm and unquestionable commitment.
Julia Roberts ("Ocean's Twelve") plays Joanne Herring, Charlie's primary love interest who happens also to be his wealthiest and most carnally amiable supporter. She is hip to his wiles and charms but, most importantly, where his political heart is. They are of one mind on their issues and, given that she's married, on their frivolities.
Another standout is Amy Adams ("Enchanted," "Junebug") as Charlie's number one assistant Bonnie in a relationship of complete trust and mutual respect and, at least on her part, adoration, which she conveys smartly and intelligently. This lady has just been getting better and better as her parts have improved.
Emily Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada") services the film as a special liaison (okay, tryst partner) for Charlie, as ideal a casting as you can get where a near-perfect body is the requirement.
Finally, I must say it... Hoffman ("Capote") contains his natural affinity for awkward bluster by turning in a colorful character performance that is my favorite for him, bar none. Credit Nichols again for constraining Hoffman to the right amount of animation for the rogue agent in a key position at a vital point in time for the interests of the country.
However much Charlie has been cheered and/or honored for his contribution by his fellow congressmen and by the covert community, there remains the unintended consequences one might have expected of arming the Moujahadeen with our weapons. The blowback has been negatively crucial, with later use of them going to who knows what warlords in the region.
In so deftly handling a serious and real political issue (however given cover by the forgiveness of time), "Charlie Wilson's War" is a lesson in how such themes can be used to pay off richly in an entertainment context. It is unusually informative, shrewdly crafted and, because an ideal group of talents put it together, just plain fun. It puts into place polemically windy projects as "Lions For Lambs" whose use of celluloid should all the more be questioned.
~~ Jules Brenner