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Charlie Wilson's War: Unlikely Heroes and the Blowback of U.S. Involvement in the Soviet War in Aghanistan

By Melissa Leuzzi

“Without Charlie, history would be hugely and sadly different” (0:02:09)

[1] Charlie Wilson’s War is a unique historical film. Perhaps most importantly, the film is the first to tackle the history of the United States’ involvement in the Soviet War in Afghanistan. In this way, the filmmakers covered new ground in their endeavor. It is also important to note that the film, unlike other movies that serve to depict historical events, is written as a comedy. Though, at times, the film deals with serious subject matter, the dialogue and character interaction are meant to be comical for audiences. While the film addresses the events surrounding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the film does not pursue the current situation in Afghanistan -- a situation that many argue is the result of allied involvement in the invasion. Charlie Wilson’s War also portrays events in history with which very few are familiar. Thus, it is difficult for audiences to evaluate its historical accuracy, because those in the audience typically do not know the facts surrounding the events prior to viewing the film.

[2] Consequently, the film raises several issues that are worthy of exploration. The comical nature of the character interactions throughout the film demonstrates the fact that the key players in the true life events comprise an unlikely group of activists. Another important issue with the film is the most recent history in Afghanistan, including the country’s takeover by the Taliban and resulting links to terrorist acts in the West. Personally, I have enjoyed working with the film because it is the only one of its kind. Because no other films depict the history of these events, and because audiences are unfamiliar with such events in history, it is important to evaluate this film fairly and to question its accuracy and agenda.

[3] Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), and Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are an unlikely group of heroes. Their dynamic as a group of activists is perhaps why this film is so funny. However, it is important to note that their dynamic is not dramatized for effect in the film. Wilson, Herring, and Avrakotos did, in fact, interact in this way in real life. Their characterization is spot on, according to the historical account provided by George Crile. Wilson is an unlikely hero because of his colorful personal life and his previous lack of action within the House of Representatives. Wilson grew up in Texas, attended public school, and eventually attended the United States Naval Academy. Wilson graduated eighth from the bottom of his class at the Academy and went on to enter politics. What he lacked in ethics, he made up for in passion. Wilson claims he “fell in love with America” the day he had his neighbor voted out of local office. His passion for veterans, history, and patriotism made Wilson an obvious candidate for local and national politics.

[4] Once in the House of Representatives, Wilson immediately hired a crew of women referred to as “Charlie’s Angels.” His drinking and womanizing became public knowledge, and Wilson earned the nickname “Good time Charlie.” His infamous trip to Las Vegas in 1981 brought Wilson under the microscope for drug use and misconduct. The Justice Department investigated Wilson’s activities extensively, and Wilson narrowly escaped conviction. When Wilson was up for reelection in the 1980’s, he barely saved his job when issues pertaining to his personal life and character were brought up by his opponent. Wilson’s charisma and likeability kept him in office despite what Pakistan’s President Zia referred to as his “character flaws.” Perhaps it is Wilson’s flaws that make him a likeable figure both in life and on screen. However, it cannot be argued that Wilson’s colorful background makes him an unlikely hero. Political heroes are often men and women of sacrifice and virtue. Wilson does not, at least outwardly, appear to possess either quality. As an alcoholic and womanizer, Wilson seems unlikely to become involved in any particular cause. In fact, Wilson only attended the viewing of an Afghan documentary and traveled to Pakistan to please a woman, Joanne Herring. However, Wilson’s admiration for war heroes and patriotism drew him to the Afghan cause. Though Wilson appears to be fun-loving, perhaps even untrustworthy, on the outside, his passion made him a die-hard supporter of the Afghanistan fighters.

[5] In addition, Wilson’s record in the House of Representatives was largely unimpressive in the 1980’s. In the film, Wilson admits, “I come from the only district that doesn’t want anything. They want their guns, they want low taxes. I get to do favors. I get to vote ‘yes’ a lot.” As such, Wilson’s reputation on Capitol Hill only detailed his personal life, not his professional activity. Wilson’s only noteworthy achievement, according to his colleagues, is being reelected six times. Even Avrakotos, in the film, tells Wilson that he has never heard of him. The only fact of importance regarding Wilson’s professional life is his position, because at the time of the war Wilson sat on the Appropriations Committee and Subcommittee on Defense. As such, he was able to access the budget and the CIA, making U.S. involvement possible. Wilson’s lack of notoriety is another reason that he can be considered an unlikely hero.

[6] Joanne Herring is also not a typical freedom fighter. As a Houston socialite, Herring has unlimited funds and endless social engagements. Often socialites stick to the social scene and remain uninvolved in politics until it becomes trendy to take a stance on one particular issue. However, Herring was feverishly involved in politics before and after the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Herring accredits her interest to her religion, as she constantly refers to saving the Afghans as a “Christian imperative” in the film. Herring’s connections to the President of Pakistan are unexpected, to say the least, as one would not think a rich American socialite could manage to contact a dictator halfway around the world. Herring’s support of Zia, and of his questionable ascent to power, is so outrageous in the film that it is comical. Herring’s interest in the Pakistan government and the plight of the fighters in Afghanistan seems completely improbable. Yet Herring’s commitment to the Afghans both in life and in the film is genuine. Herring travels to Pakistan to secure Doc Long’s support, support that will ensure that the fight is funded properly. She does not hesitate to reach out to those around her, and she uses charm and sex appeal to persuade those around her that the Afghan cause is imperative to national and religious interests. Without Herring, it can be argued that the Afghan cause may never have made it to Capitol Hill in the hands of someone who could actually help. Though Herring appears, outwardly, to be nothing but a socialite, her activism and persistence makes her a champion of the Afghan cause.

[7] Similarly, Gust Avrakotos does not appear to be the average CIA agent. Avrakotos did not have the typical upbringing of a CIA agent. As a Pennsylvania resident, Avrakotos went to a local high school and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. In the film, Avrakotos’ first scene depicts him screaming at his boss and threatening to expose him. Avrakotos is unrefined and unapologetic. His foul language and abrasive nature cost him positions, promotions, and friends within the office. For this reason, Avrakotos moved to the “Afghan desk,” an area in which only two other men were working at the time. Avrakotos became an integral part of the fight for Afghanistan, as he facilitated negotiations between leaders in Pakistan, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. His worldliness and intelligence overshadowed his explosive tendencies, and it is certain that without Avrakotos acting on behalf of the CIA it would have been more difficult for the branch to cooperate with Wilson, Herring, the government, and other international figures. However, because Avrakotos is such a curious figure, it seems unlikely at first glance that he could be capable of such achievement.

[8] The film also raises the important issue of Afghanistan’s past, present, and future. Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979, and in the following years a coalition of nations worked together to fund the mujahedeen fighters. The mujahedeen, miraculously, was successful. Charlie Wilson’s War focuses on the coalition of nations and victory of the mujahedeen. At the end of the film, Wilson fights the rest of his committee members for the appropriations to rebuild an Afghani school. Tragically, the committee makes it clear that “no one cares” about the Afghans anymore. Just as the Cold War sparked heated interest in the invasion, the pending dissolution of the Soviet Union caused concern for Afghanistan to dissipate just as quickly. Thus, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan completely ended after Soviet withdrawal and demise. The final seconds of the film show a quote from Charlie Wilson that reads, “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And then we fucked up the endgame…” The quote refers to the subsequent events that took place in Afghanistan, some of which many believe lead to the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States, the July bombing of the London tube system, and other attacks on the West.

[9] Several critics of the film Charlie Wilson’s War argue that the film “skims when you want it to skewer” (Rolling Stone). Such criticism directly relates to the film’s handling of the Afghanistan situation after the Soviet pullout and in the following years. Though the film illustrates the way in which Wilson lobbies for funding, the film shies from asking the tough questions. The film, though political, appears to take an a-political stance in the end scene. Many filmmakers would delve into the controversial topic and offer explanations or criticism of U.S. actions. However, Nichols and Sorkin reject the opportunity to do so and end the film abruptly with Wilson’s quote. The ending raises the issue of Afghanistan’s years at the beginning of the 1990’s, and though the filmmakers choose not to address the issue, for the purposes of film study it must be explored.

[10] Over one million Afghans were killed during the Soviet invasion and occupation. Many millions more were displaced, with the majority of refugees fleeing to Pakistan and Iran. Soviet troops, at the time of invasion, destroyed Afghan irrigation systems, bombed farm fields, and shot livestock. As a result, at the end of the occupation, food shortages were an incredible problem for the Afghans. Malnourishment was a particular problem among children, many of whom were permanently maimed by Soviet landmines. Afghanistan ranked among the top poorest nations of the world at this time, and the government was in complete disarray. Because U.S. interest in the country had died completely, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia became the only nations still involved in Afghan affairs.

[11] As time went on, Pakistan forged relationships with the Taliban for the convenience of trade routes. As civil war raged in Afghanistan, the Taliban emerged as a group fighting for power. In 1994, the Taliban marched across southern Afghanistan, taking over provinces as they moved. The mujahedeen fighters surrendered to Taliban forces nearly every time the two groups were about to engage, and in 1995 the Taliban took over the capital of Afghanistan. After the Taliban took over Kabul, the Northern Alliance was created. The Northern Alliance, or the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, attempted to take control from the Taliban but was not successful. The Taliban, after taking power, was supported heavily by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

[12] The Taliban still held much power in Afghanistan in 2001 when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked in the United States. Al Qaeda, the group responsible for the attacks, has close ties to the Taliban, though many Taliban do not consider themselves part of Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden, a prominent Al Qaeda leader, fought in the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion before forming the militant Islamic group responsible for the 2001 attacks. Bin Laden’s ascent to power through Taliban control in Afghanistan creates a clear connection to U.S. involvement in the Soviet war. Because the United States refused to remain involved in Afghan affairs after the Soviet withdrawal, Pakistan was left free to create alliances and support leaders that the United States surely would not support. As groups like the Taliban gained and kept power, Al Qaeda was free to use Afghanistan as a base for its anti-Western activities.

[13] It can be argued, then, that had the U.S. remained involved in Afghanistan’s affairs, the Taliban and Al Qaeda may not have had the opportunity to gain power. If a more democratic and pro-Western government had been in place throughout the 1990’s, it is improbable that the plan for the 2001 attacks could have been conceived in Afghanistan. Moreover, U.S. aid after the Soviet withdrawal could have created a pro-Western climate in the nation, making support for militant Islamic groups against the West impossible in Afghanistan. The film does not explore the activities in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviets in the late 1980’s and does not question what could have been had the United States remained involved in Afghani affairs. Critics of the film argue that the film should not have ended as it did, and it should have questioned these possible scenarios. Critics do not appear to argue a particular angle, and it may not have mattered if the film had criticized the U.S. or explained its position, as long as it took a stance either way. However, its failure to do so left many feeling flat. Because the blowback from U.S. involvement is crucial to the understanding of the current state of affairs, it is curious that filmmakers chose not to address the situation in Afghanistan after Soviet withdrawal. Had the film taken a stance on the subject and presented an argument one way or another, some viewers may have responded more positively toward the film.

[14] As a scholar of the film, I have enjoyed working with a movie that details events not well known to the public at large. The events in Charlie Wilson’s War describe a situation with which many Americans remain unfamiliar. Unlike historical films about wars and Presidents, viewers do not view the film with specific memories or preconceived opinions about the events depicted. As such, the film stands by itself, because it illustrates a situation that viewers did not know about before seeing the film. In this way, studying the film is crucial so that others can understand what parts of history are exaggerated, omitted, or changed in the film. Luckily, in the case of Charlie Wilson’s War, almost nothing in the film is exaggerated or changed from the true events that Crile details in his book. Because the book is based on fourteen years of research, the book can be used as a reliable source when evaluating the film. Though some portions of the book are omitted for time’s sake, nothing of value is changed or left out of the film. The film is also devoid of agenda. The film does not take a stance on the Afghanistan situation and does not sugarcoat the life of Wilson. Each of Wilson’s shortcomings and indiscretions are detailed, proving that filmmakers are not out to create a perfect hero. Studying Charlie Wilson’s War has been most fulfilling for me because it is a film that covers new ground, which also means that few have taken the time to explore the film as deeply as I.

[15] The issues in the study of Charlie Wilson’s War are crucial to understanding the film both by itself and in the context of history. The film portrays characters that are unlikely heroes, avoids the issues in Afghanistan through the 1990’s, and explains events that have just recently become public knowledge.