Pop quiz: Charlie Wilson was ...
A) A drink-swilling, coke-snorting, womanizing U.S. congressman.
B) An American hero who almost single-handedly funded Afghanistan's rebellion against the occupying Soviet Union in the 1980s—which, incidentally, helped trigger the fall of Soviet Communism.
C) An unwitting player in Afghanistan's later turn toward Islamic extremism.
In Charlie Wilson's War, which is based on a true story, the answer is D) All of the above. And that's fitting for a film in which nothing is as it seems.
The onscreen incarnation of longtime democratic congressman Charlie Wilson seemingly suffers from some form of moral deficiency syndrome. He staffs his office with young, beautiful women known as "Charlie's Angels." He drinks almost constantly. He cavorts in Las Vegas with cocaine-using strippers.
When Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill asks that he fill a vacancy on the House of Representative's Ethics Committee, Charlie is dumbfounded.
"Everyone in town knows that I'm on the other side of this issue," he says.
But the depravity covers a formidable intellect and a stubborn strain of idealism. Charlie also belongs to some seriously powerful committees, all of which combine to make him a strangely powerful person. No one else in Washington has the clout to, say, almost single-handedly—and covertly—funnel money to the struggling Afghan resistance.
Enter Joanne Herring, a rich Houston socialite who has the body of Julia Roberts, the brain of William F. Buckley and a heart for the Afghan people. She's determined, resourceful and possesses a Rolodex card for her old "friend" Charlie. She invites him to a party, has sex with him and, before Charlie even has time to finish his accompanying bath, convinces him to take up her pet cause: To help Afghan rebels conk those Communists.
What follows is a dizzying and outrageous political gambit. Charlie, with the help of a frumpy, foulmouthed CIA agent named Gust, gets buy-in from countries that normally wouldn't even speak to one another. He pushes through huge aid packages to Afghan rebels, increasing U.S. support from a paltry $5 million to a whopping $500 million. And since Saudi Arabia will match any funds the U.S. gives to the rebels, that's $1 billion in aid.
The rest, as they say, is history.
You might say the folks in Charlie Wilson's War are people of "character." Their personalities are brash and outsized, and all walk around unrepentant of their flaws. But all three primaries also believe in the basic justice and goodness of their collective cause.
For Charlie and Joanne, this is more than just a covert battle in the long Cold War. They've seen the refugee camps and understand the horrors the Soviet occupation has visited upon the Afghan people. For them, helping the rebellion is as much humanitarian as political: They want to help these people save themselves.
The role of religion in global strife is neither downplayed here, nor is faith needlessly demonized. Detached respect—for all forms—is probably the best way to put it. And nods to religion are everywhere. We see a rebel Afghan praying toward Mecca with a portable missile launcher lying nearby. We hear Charlie arguing with a Christian constituent over the placement of a Christmas crèche. And we watch a "Baptist" belly dancer from Charlie's home district intentionally distract a prominent Egyptian politico during an important meeting. Gust says that he hired a witch to curse his boss. He also relates an old Zen Buddhist parable that illustrates the unforeseen turns history can take.
Joanne is, nominally, a conservative Christian. She's an idealist whose motivations seem to stem from her faith, and she frames the fight as a "Christian imperative." What does she say when Charlie asks her to "dial down religion" because he's worried her God talk could jeopardize fragile partnerships he's formed with largely Muslim countries?
"I can't modulate God's will, sweetie."
Gust tells Joanne that he's Russian Orthodox. "That's still Christian," she says. "That's a relief," he deadpans. But Gust is far more skeptical than Joanne. When she asks him, "You don't see God's hand in this?" he answers, "I don't see God within miles of this."
In an effort to get an important congressman on their side, Charlie and Joanne take him on a tour of an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan. The congressman, apparently deeply religious, is moved by what he sees and promises the Afghans aid. When the Afghans begin the Islamic chant that translates to "God is good," the congressman joins in—in English.
"I talk about God for one simple reason," Joanne whispers to Charlie during the rally. "We need Him on our side."
"Sooner or later, God's going to be on both sides," Charlie whispers back.
We first meet Charlie in Las Vegas. He's in a hot tub, talking with a bikinied adult-movie starlet who hopes to headline a prime-time soap opera. Two naked strippers join them. (The camera doesn’t blink.) Then the nude politician gets out of the water. (And the camera takes in his backside.)
Charlie later has a rendezvous with a constituent's grown daughter, who parades around in his apartment in her underwear and an unbuttoned dress shirt. She asks him if he'd like the "second-best view" in D.C.—the first being the view from his balcony.
Charlie's staff are all young and curvy women. When a constituent asks why, one of the girls quotes Charlie as saying, "You can teach 'em to type, but you can't teach 'em to grow t-ts."
During a fund-raising party at Joanne's house (in which college girls are apparently being "auctioned off" for charity), Joanne invites Charlie up to her room. The next time audiences see them, Charlie's in a bathtub and Joanne's freshening her makeup. They talk about how many times they experienced orgasms. Throughout the film, the two are occasionally shown holding hands and grabbing one another's rumps.
Joanne wears several dresses with deeply scooping necklines. And she calls Charlie's staff "sluts" as she walks by.
Gust propositions Joanne. (She refuses.) A soviet helicopter pilot chuckles at his girlfriend's desire he remain monogamous. By phone, Charlie asks Joanne if he'll ever see her "nekked" again while Joanne's sitting in bed beside her new husband. "Goodbye, Charlie," she says.
Soviet helicopters strafe Afghan villages. Some of the attack is shown from the cockpit of a helicopter, and we watch sheep fall in hails of bullets. The balance is filmed from street level as the copters mow down civilians.
More graphic are the stories the Afghans tell Charlie in the refugee camps. One boy tells about grabbing something "shiny" that blew up in his face, robbing him of his arms. A little girl sits nearby, also missing arms. Women talk about how the Russians would slit the throats of children. Charlie learns that the Soviets sometimes rape the women and bayonet the pregnant ones.
Afghans get their revenge later on, blowing up a trio of helicopters (much to the shock of the Russians piloting them).
Charlie Wilson's War also contains a great deal of archival news footage. It shows exploding tanks, planes and helicopters.
Gust shatters the office window of his boss.
Crude or Profane Language
The real Joanne Herring says she never curses, and she successfully got the film's makers to keep her onscreen language clean. Most everyone else, though, has no such reservations. Among other foul words, the f-word is used about 40 times, the s-word another 10. Characters also abuse God's and Jesus' names.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several characters smoke and do drugs, and almost all are shown drinking. But it's Charlie's habits this film is most interested in. He's rarely seen without a glass of whisky in his hand. And Gust gets Charlie's attention by giving him a bottle of single-malt Scotch—a bottle he's secretly bugged. Charlie's the subject of an ethics probe (an investigation led by a young Rudy Giuliani) alleging he snorted cocaine in Las Vegas. By movie's end, the investigation's been dropped: One witness apparently did see Charlie snort cocaine—outside U.S. jurisdiction in the Cayman Islands.
We never see Charlie use coke, but we do see the naked Vegas strippers snort the stuff.
When a newspaper calls to ask if Charlie's ever been in rehab, Charlie's press secretary responds by saying he's never gone because "they don't serve whiskey there." He's shown tipsy and weepy, and at one point tosses several bottles of emptied booze into the trashcan.
Other Negative Elements
CIA agents express excitement over getting the opportunity to "kill Russians."
In the space of only a few months, waves of political, war-themed message movies have forcibly occupied American theaters: Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, The Hunting Party. Most of them are clumsy and heavy-handed—more anti-war lecture than anything you'd want to munch popcorn while watching.
Charlie Wilson's War, by contrast, comes in with a lighter touch. It's both thoughtful and farcical, a fact-based story that suggests that—to paraphrase Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings movies—even the wisest among us cannot know all ends. It also attempts to illustrate that bearing a cracked character doesn't always mean a man cannot rise to certain occasions.
"I learned you are a man of many character flaws," Pakistan's president tells Charlie. The congressman later confesses that you've really hit the bottom of the barrel when a despotic leader—who killed his predecessor—points out your moral shortcomings.
The same could be said about the movie itself. It's not just that it bears cracked, R-rated content. It's how it treats that content. Charlie's drinking and sexism are running gags, not serious issues. It transforms "character flaws" into "character," and ethical missteps lack any repercussive bite.
We want to root for Charlie in spite of his shortcomings, however. And his constituents apparently did, too: The real Charlie Wilson was elected and reelected 12 times, finally leaving office in 1997.
But while it's fine to acknowledge the achievements of a flawed hero, let's not—as Charlie Wilson's War would like us to—ignore the damage the flaws can cause. Let's not ignore the fact that heavy drinking is dangerous; that drug abuse is illegal; that Charlie's brand of sexism was stigmatized for good reason.