‘Charlie Wilson’s War’

Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in "Charlie Wilson's War."

History in the Movies / By Cathy Schultz

It has all the ingredients of a great satire. A hard-drinking congressman, a gorgeous Texas socialite, and a grumpy CIA agent team up for hijinks and heroics, and together manage to bring down the Soviet Empire.

But “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the entertaining new film by Mike Nichols, isn’t a satire. It’s based on the true story of the largest covert operation in history, when the CIA secretly spent billions in funding the Afghan mujahedin in their defeat of the Soviets in the 1980s, a defeat that probably helped accelerate the end of the Soviet Union. Here’s the history behind the film’s larger-than-life characters, and stranger-than-fiction plot.

Q. Can CIA involvement in Afghanistan really be traced back to Texas socialite Joanne Herring?

A. That’s the contention of journalist George Crile, the author of the bestselling book on which the film is based. According to Crile, Herring (played here by Julia Roberts) set the CIA funding into motion through her close friendship with Congressman Charlie Wilson.

Herring was charming, beautiful and a fixture on the Houston social scene. But her real passion was geopolitics, particularly the anti-communist variety. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Herring embraced the Afghan “freedom fighters” as her cause, and used all her considerable charm and connections to get them aid from Washington. Wilson, who converted into an equally fervent supporter of the Afghans under Herring’s encouragement, became her conduit for that.

Q. But Wilson’s just one Congressman. How could he get so much funding authorized?

A. Mostly because he was on the Defense Appropriations Committee. That small group controls the CIA’s entire budget, a budget conveniently hidden from the public, and even from Congress. So with no debate or fanfare, Wilson could quietly oversee dramatic increases in funds to the Afghans, from $5 million a year in 1979 to $500 million 10 years later.

Q. Was Charlie Wilson really so scandal-prone, or did the film exaggerate that?

A. The press dubbed him “Good Time Charlie” for his unabashed boozing and womanizing. Tom Hanks lays on the charm in his portrayal of Wilson, but the more egregious sins of the congressman get glossed over a bit. We don’t see him snorting cocaine, for instance, and there’s no mention of the drunken hit-and-run accident he had just before his first visit to Pakistan. “I got off easy,” the actual Wilson remarked after seeing the movie.

But as the film shows, Wilson did come under suspicion for cocaine use. And heading the Justice Department investigation into that charge was then-famed prosecutor Rudy Giuliani.

Q. Did Wilson really staff his congressional office with young, beautiful women?

A. He did. His staff became known as “Charlie’s Angels” on Capitol Hill. When questioned about this practice, Wilson liked to respond with this politically incorrect line: “You can teach them how to type, but you can’t teach them to grow [breasts].”

Interestingly though, Amy Adams plays Wilson’s administrative assistant in the film; the congressman tended to hire men in that position.

Q. Did Gust Avrakotos, the CIA agent who worked with Wilson, really get demoted for insulting his superiors?

A. That part is true. A working-class Greek-American, Avrakotos hated the Ivy League snobbery among the CIA elite, and wasn’t shy about expressing his feelings in rather colorful language. His bluntness lost him a plum position in Europe, and led to his landing in the Afghan division.

Q. Did Avrakotos first meet Wilson on the day Wilson learned he was being investigated?

A. It’s one of the funniest scenes in the film, as Wilson’s meeting with Avrakotos (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman with a funky mustache) keeps getting interrupted by Wilson’s secretaries bringing ever more dire news of the cocaine investigation. But the two men actually met long after, when Wilson approached the CIA to inquire about better weapons for the Afghans.

Q. How effective was the CIA assistance to the Afghans?

A. Enormously effective. With an ever growing budget, Avrakotos and Wilson helped funnel huge amounts of sophisticated weaponry to the Afghans. Most valuable were the Stinger missiles, handheld anti-aircraft missiles that could bring down the Soviet helicopter gunships. Introduced in 1986, the Stingers helped turn the tide of war in favor of the Afghans.

Yet the covert nature of this operation was so effective that most Afghans-or Americans for that matter-never knew about the heavy commitment by the U.S. in helping the Afghan guerillas take down the Soviet Union.

Q. Once the war ended, did Wilson start pushing for Afghanistan to get money for schools?

A. This part’s a bit fudged. While Wilson did push for humanitarian aid, he also kept the military aid and weaponry flowing into the country, even two years after the Soviet withdrawal. In the meantime, Afghan warlords began fighting with one another, laying further waste to their already devastated country. And more ominously, militant Islam was on the rise in Afghanistan, attracting radicals from around the region, all emboldened by the seemingly miraculous victory of the mujahedin. And in this new jihad taking shape, America would become as much the enemy as the Soviet Union.

But the film ends before all those messy, unforeseen consequences can unfold. In fact, “Charlie Wilson’s War” is an upbeat film. You’ll find yourself cheering with Wilson and his friends when lowly Afghan peasants finally begin shooting down Soviet helicopters. So, enjoy. And try to ignore those pesky clouds on the horizon.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. You can reach her through her website at www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies