Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Rated R. Our ratings: V- 3; L- 4; S/N-5. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
Psalm 72:1-4

Do these two look like a threat to the Soviet Empire?

2007 Universal Pictures

Charlie Wilson is not a king, but he does belong to society’s ruling elite as a member of Congress—and as we see in this funny yet serious film, he certainly does “give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” in a strangely round about way. Veteran director Mike Nichols has teamed up with Aaron Sorkin, the most politically astute writer in Hollywood, to suggest that a high rolling and luxury loving Texan Congressman might have had more to do with bringing to an end the Cold War than most of us hitherto suspected. And for Christians, this true story shows again how God might use unlikely people to bring about good—though blasting planes and tanks filled with human beings might seem more Old Testament “good” than what the New Testament deems as good.

As portrayed by Tom Hanks, Congressman Charlie Wilson seems like a good ole Texas boy version of Oskar Schindler, not exactly the kind of serious person we would pick as the savior of a people. But even when we first see Charlie naked (presumably, the full extent of his body is not shown) in a hot tub, sipping a drink with several nubile young women, his attention keeps getting drawn to a television screen. Dan Rather is reporting on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the invader’s brutal treatment of the people. Thus, he is set to listen when his sometime lover, wealthy socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) bends his ear about the Soviet invasion of the country and the US government’s inaction. He had already doubled the paltry funds for aid to the rebels in Afghanistan, but as she points out, far more is needed to make a difference.

A born again Christian and staunch anti-Communist, Joanne points out that Charlie’s Congressional committee membership places him at “the intersection of the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA.” She convinces the reluctant Charlie to fly to Pakistan and meet with President Zia, but this meeting does not go well, until Charlie agrees to visit one of the refugee camps. This visit becomes the pivotal moment of the movie, the vast expanse of the tents and the haunting eyes and battered bodies of women and children, many of them without limbs because of Soviet bombs and land mines, arousing Charlie’s compassion—it is the counterpart of that moment in Schindler’s List when the German industrialist is out riding horseback with his mistress and watches the Nazis rounding up the city’s Jews, one little girl in a red coat especially touching his heart.

The rest, as they say, is history, Charlie joining up with maverick CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Both plotters are in deep trouble, Gust on the verge of being thrown out of the Agency because he is always bucking his overly cautious superiors, and Charlie being swept up in a morals investigation because he hangs out with cocaine using friends. Gust provides the international connections to obtain large shipments of Soviet weapons (the CIA is afraid that if the US were to ship American-made ones and it were made known, the Soviets would escalate the Cold War dangerously). Their scheming to set up their covert support of the Afghan rebels involves a trip to Israel and Egypt and the employment of a friend of Charley’s who is a belly dancer.

All the above sounds absurd, and it gives the movie a light touch that bothers some viewers, the Cold War and the terrible fate of so many Afghans being a very serious matter. Indeed, the film is labeled a comedy, even a satire, and yet according to George Crile’s book, the full name of which is Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History, the events depicted in the film are true. Is reality as absurd as this? (No doubt Joseph Heller would agree that it is—and it was Mike Nichols who directed the movie adaptation of that book satirizing the WW 2 military establishment!) Or from a Christian perspective, would God really work in such a way, using a morally lax socialite, a womanizing politician, and a loose cannon of a secret agent to defeat “the Evil Empire” (not to mention a belly dancer!)? That would be as crazy as starting a new nation from a pair of 90+ year-old Middle Easterners or sending a Jewish boy to fight a giant warrior terrorizing the army of his nation. What a God!

For Reflection/Discussion

1) What did you think of Charlie when you first saw him in the hot tub? And yet how do we see even then that there is more than the pleasure principle operating in his life? How do you think he compares with Oskar Schindler?

2) Even Charlie’s office staff have been chosen for their looks—and yet are they “bimbos” ? In what ways do we see their competence in their work?

3) What about Joanne Herring—does she seem like a person to change history? What point do you think that the filmmakers are making when she is lecturing Charlie while she tends to her eye lids and make-up? At what points do we see that she is more than just a good looking socialite?

4) The entrenched US diplomats and CIA leaders are made to look like they are dull and incompetent, but what about their concern that US actions ought not to result in the Soviets raising the level of conflict?

5) How did you feel when, during Charlie’s visit to the refugee camp, the camera revealed the vast stretch of the camp with it tents and teeming humanity stretching as far as the eye could see? How is this the defining moment in the Congressman’s life and career?

6) How can we see the past events in Afghanistan as a way in which the God of history works, despite the murky morality of those fighting against the Soviets? Check out the book of Isaiah for the best view of God working among and through the nations: (7:18 and 40:10-17 are but two of many passages asserting God’s sovereignty.)

7) One hard lesson that leaders often learn is that a policy might have unexpected, and unwelcome, consequences. What happened in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the Soviet forces? How does the film show that Charlie was aware of what might happen? How did the deafness of our government to his pleas and warnings lead to? How does the story of the Zen master fit in here?