'Charlie Wilson's War' Was Unlikely, But True

Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) in a hot tub. i i

Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was known for being a ladies man. In his first appearance in the film, he lounges in a Las Vegas hot tub. Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures
Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) in a hot tub.

Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was known for being a ladies man. In his first appearance in the film, he lounges in a Las Vegas hot tub.

Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures
Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) looks in the mirror. i i

Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) was virulently anti-Communist. She persuaded Wilson to take up the cause of the Afghan soldiers fighting the Soviets. Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures
Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) looks in the mirror.

Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) was virulently anti-Communist. She persuaded Wilson to take up the cause of the Afghan soldiers fighting the Soviets.

Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures
Wilson (Tom Hanks) sits with CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) i i

The congressman (Tom Hanks, left) receives a briefing from CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Francois Duhamel/Universal Studios hide caption

itoggle caption Francois Duhamel/Universal Studios
Wilson (Tom Hanks) sits with CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman)

The congressman (Tom Hanks, left) receives a briefing from CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Francois Duhamel/Universal Studios
Director Mike Nichols (right) on the set with Philip Seymour Hoffman. i i

Director Mike Nichols (right) on the set with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Nichols says he sometimes had to remind himself that the story he was telling in the film was true. Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures
Director Mike Nichols (right) on the set with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Director Mike Nichols (right) on the set with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Nichols says he sometimes had to remind himself that the story he was telling in the film was true.

Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures

Charlie Wilson's War is a dark comedy based on the real activities of an East Texas congressman who, in the 1980s, managed to funnel powerful weapons to Afghanistan for soldiers fighting against the Soviets.

Wilson, played by Tom Hanks, was part of a colorful trio backing the Afghans' fight. He joined forces with Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), an anti-Communist Texas socialite, and Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a hard-as-nails CIA agent.

A crushing defeat in Afghanistan would ultimately help bring down the Soviet Union and end the Cold War. Director Mike Nichols and Tom Hanks talked with Renee Montagne about adapting the real-life story to film.

An Unlikely Champion

Wilson is introduced to the film's viewers as he lounges in a hot tub in Las Vegas, surrounded by exotic dancers and drugs.

"He was a notorious party boy [and] ladies man..." Hanks says, "He would not hide the fact that he was a Congressman; he would walk into Caesar's Palace and say, 'Hi, I'm Congressman Charlie Wilson from Texas. I'm supposed to be here for a big party up in the luxury suite.'"

The playboy congressman was no doubt an unexpected champion of the Afghan mujahedeen, but Hanks says the Muslim soldiers' struggle against the Soviet invasion tapped into Wilson's tendency to side with the underdog.

"Charlie loved the 'Davids' of the world as opposed to the 'Goliaths,'" Hanks says, "and in this case when he [saw] this ragtag group of people fighting the Soviet army, he identified with them."

Surprising Allies

Wilson and Herring (his on-and-off socialite lover) and Avrakotos (his blue-collar CIA agent friend) made up a particularly unlikely alliance in supporting the Afghan cause. Director Mike Nichols thinks the reason Wilson and Avrakotos became so close was because they were "guys who tell the truth casually and constantly."

The trio's success was due in part to their pure desire to make it work — Hanks cites Wilson's "Machiavellian" approach to congressional subcommittees — and also their ability to parlay personal connections into committed allies. Wilson recruited Pakistanis, Egyptians, an Israeli arms dealer ... and many others who would not normally have been together in the same room.

"It's an example, I think, of how personal contact meant everything," Hanks says. "Charlie knew these guys, Charlie talked to all these guys — if they were friends of Charlie's, they must be OK."

'This Actually Happened'

The far-out-but-true story was at times a difficult one to adapt for the screen. Nichols says he would sometimes stop during filming and say to himself: "Remember, this actually happened."

The story is particularly complex in the post-Sept. 11 era, now that the chain of events in Afghanistan — including U.S and Soviet activities — is seen as playing a role in the rise of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

Nichols says this moral ambiguity is what the film is really about, and that the best thing his film can do is raise questions, but not offer answers.

"You don't know the consequences of any act," Nichols says. "You don't know good things from bad things when they're coming at you, and sometimes [you don't know] for 10 or 20 years, or ever — because good and bad things keep turning into one another."

Charlie Wilson's War opens in theaters Friday.

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