In the typical bad film one can see the actors acting, at which point it's all over for the audience. In Charlie Wilson's War the adept viewer can see the screenplay, by Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing fame. The script might contain three laughs and is also incoherent, but there is a lot going on worthy of notice.
Based on a book by George Crile, the story involves Charlie Wilson, a swinging bachelor congressman from Texas, here played by Tom Hanks, here at his best but looking rather like Joe Don Baker. When not getting drunk or cavorting with strippers, Wilson uses his leverage to get missiles to the Afghan rebels so they can shoot down the helicopters of the Soviet invaders. The real villains, however, are not the Soviets, nor even, as one would expect, the CIA, though most are buffoons straight from central casting. The real villains are American religious conservatives.
"America doesn't fight religious wars," explains Gust Avrakatos, a CIA man played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, to Joanne Herring, a wealthy Texan played by Julia Roberts. Joanne is a staunch Christian conservative and anti-communist but also a boozer and sex maniac. Gust is concerned that she is portraying the Afghan conflict as a religious war. "Dial down the religion," he tells her. Like the rest of the movie, this is Aaron Sorkin, bard of the secular left, talking down to People Who Aren't Like Him. Viewers may recognize the theme from The West Wing. The issue also comes up when one of Wilson's paunchy constituents complains that the ACLU wants to remove a Christmas crèche from the firehouse. Wilson says move it to a church lawn and no problem.
In the early going, Wilson is fielding a pitch for a television show along the lines of "Dallas Goes to Washington," which much of this movie is, though it will remind some of Ishtar. Boobs and bare asses abound but on some key points Sorkin remains squeamish. Wilson visits Afghan refugee camps to see their plight for himself. They tell him about Soviet atrocities but viewers do not see children blown up by bombs disguised as toys. They don't see the Soviet invaders running over captives with tanks. These things happened but someone talking about it doesn't quite convey the effect. Only a few fleeting scenes show Soviet helicopters launching random attacks.
Wilson returns determined to boost the budget for the Afghan rebels but he is being investigated for cocaine by an ambitious politician named Rudy Giuliani. Like Lions for Lambs, this signals the use of cinema as an election tool, but it's not all negative. John Murtha, the Democrats anti-Iraq-war critic, is a Good Guy, though viewers see neither politician. The only view of Ronald Reagan, the president of the time, is in a framed picture, obscured by a CIA man dressing up as Santa Claus. Viewers do get to see Dan Rather, disguised as an Afghan warrior. To its credit, this may be the first American movie to mention the Washington Times.
Thanks largely to Wilson, with help from Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Afghans get the missiles and start shooting down helicopters. The defeated Soviets withdraw. The covert community recognizes Wilson's contribution. Music up with a swell, but the story doesn't end there.
Sorkin can't bring himself to say it outright, but the film implies that American conservatives are responsible for empowering those Afghans who later became terrorists. One scene implies that if America had only built more schools in Afghanistan, all would be well. At the end a screen-wide quotation explains that we "f---ed up the end game." It should have said "the film."
Nearly two decades after the fall, the Hollywood left is not yet up to cinema verite on communism and the USSR. This film implies that the Cold War was something of a joke. On the other hand, Charlie Wilson's War, like Lions for Lambs, constitutes evidence that, even with Star Power, films by left-wing Democrats will not become players in the 2008 election.