The Real-Life Story Behind 'Charlie Wilson's War'

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The dark comedy is based on real events in the life of Democratic Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson. Martin Frost, a former Texas congressman, says Hollywood didn't embellish the story of Wilson's efforts to help Afghan mujahedeen fight the Soviets in the 1980s — if anything, the filmmakers toned the story down.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

"Charlie Wilson's War" opened in theaters around the country this past weekend. The movie tells the improbable story of a congressman from Texas best known for his fondness for women, whisky and maybe the occasional recreational drug.

He takes up the cause of the Afghan Mujahideen after two important events: the brutal invasion of that country by the Soviet Union in late 1979 and his meeting with Joanne Herring, an enormously attractive anti-Communist crusader.

Charlie Wilson is played by Tom Hanks; Joanne Herring by Julia Roberts.

(Soundbite of movie "Charlie Wilson's War")

Ms. JULIA ROBERTS (Actor): (As Joanne Herring) So unless I'm wrong - and that would be unusual for me - you sit at the intersection of the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA, you meet in a sound-proof room underneath the Capitol, and you preside over a secret and unlimited budget for the three agencies you would need to conduct a covert war. Isn't that right?

Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor): (As Charlie Wilson) I also have seats at the Kennedy Center.

Ms. ROBERTS: (As Joanne Herring) Isn't that how you were able to double the CIA budget for black-ops in Afghanistan, just by saying so?

Mr. HANKS: (As Charlie Wilson) Why are you only asking me questions you already know the answers to?

Ms. ROBERTS: (As Joanne Herring) Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?

Mr. HANKS: (As Charlie Wilson) Well, tradition mostly.

CONAN: A scene from "Charlie Wilson's War." The film goes on to show how Congressman Wilson funded the covert war in Afghanistan, help defeat the Soviet army and hasten the fall of the Soviet Union. It also raises questions about the connection between those events and the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaida.

If you're wondering if Hollywood embellished the story or what was left out, our phone number is 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. And you can check out what other listeners have to say on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Martin Frost is another former Democratic congressman from Texas. He represented the 24th Congressional District from 1979 to 2005, and joins us here today in Studio 3A. And thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. MARTIN FROST (Former Democratic Representative, Texas): Good to be here.

CONAN: And you wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal. You said: Hollywood didn't embellish the story. If anything, they toned it down.

Mr. FROST: Well, actually, I wrote it for Fox News.

CONAN: I apologize.

Mr. FROST: I do a column for them and I appear on, from time to time, on Fox News as one of the Democrats that they have on.

CONAN: Ah-hah.

Mr. FROST: If anything - I mean, the story is true. And what I mentioned in my column was that they toned down the Charlie Wilson character. I thought Tom Hanks was kind of restrained in the way he played him. Charlie was really very flamboyant - very smart and very flamboyant. And I think if they had portrayed him as flamboyant as he really was, no one would have believed any of this.

Even without that, I think it's probably hard for some people who saw the movie to say that this really happened. Well, the answer is it did really happen. Charlie Wilson actually did this.

CONAN: And before we get much further, how did you like the picture?

Mr. FROST: Oh, I love the picture. And the interesting thing to me was that the - Sorkin, the guy who wrote the script for "West…

CONAN: Aaron Sorkin.

Mr. FROST: Yeah - who wrote scripts for "West Wing" wrote the script for this. And so the details were right. Often, when you see a political movie - when I see a movie about Congress, there are little details that aren't right. All the details were right.

CONAN: Yeah. This isn't exactly advice and consent, though. The dignity of the institution is not exactly held up.

Mr. FROST: No. No. But the chamber looks right. Where he - when he's talking to people, when he's talking to Tip O'Neill's aide and when the aide asked him if he wants to be - if he'd be willing to be in the Ethics Committee and he says yes, I'll be on the Ethics Committee if you'll put me on the Kennedy Center board also, I mean, that was a conversation that really did happen.

And I could see Tip's aide, Ari Weiss - he wasn't named in the movie, but I could see him having that conversation with Charlie right of the floor of the House of Representatives.

CONAN: And also, he wanted to be on the Ethics Committee because, well, he said I'm on the other side of that issue.

Mr. FROST: I'm on the other side of the women and whisky issue, that that side deserves representation also. I think that he was being facetious about that. But - and actually, I think I still remember when Charlie was put on the committee, and he did have some reservations about being on the committee because his lifestyle was such that did raised questions.

CONAN: And in the film, he's investigated - it's an important part of the movie, at the plot, by then young prosecutor by the name of Rudolph Giuliani.

Mr. FROST: Very interesting, yeah, because I remember when all of that happened. And all of us like Charlie a lot and didn't want anything to happen to him. We didn't know the details of the investigation. We always said that if Charlie operated about on 50 percent of capacity, if he would have operated on 100 percent of capacity - that is if he hadn't been off chasing off women and haven't been drinking - that there wouldn't have - ever have been a better congressman. Even at 50 percent, Charlie was better than almost anybody I knew.

CONAN: We're talking with former congressman Martin Frost about another former congressman, Charlie Wilson, the hero of "Charlie Wilson's War," the movie that opened this past weekend. If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

And early on in the picture is another pivotal scene, which I guess sparks Mr. Giuliani's investigation. And that's a scene in a hot tub with two strippers and a Playboy cover girl. And as Charlie Wilson has said repeatedly - the question was there was a young lady with a lot of cocaine and long fingernails, which passed onto my nose. And the question was did I exhale or did I inhale, and I'm not saying.

Mr. FROST: Charlie had a way of expressing himself, which was really more colorful, all the time, than Hanks' portrayal. I mean, Charlie was - we used to say about Charlie, he was one of the people who could strut, sitting down. Charlie was an amazing - he was an amazing person. He's still alive, though he's had a heart transplant and has been recovering.

But he was what everyone would like to be. I wouldn't say that all of us wanted to be an excess - no one was suggesting that members of Congress wanted to drink quite as much as Charlie did in his heyday - but everybody wanted to be a little bit more flamboyant than they felt that they could be as a member of Congress. But Charlie could get away with it, and he could get away with it because he gave good service to the people of East Texas, he took care of their Social Security, their Medicare problems. He showed up at their - whenever they had events. I had a family from Charlie's district. And it was almost as if people were living vicariously, his constituents. Some of them were living vicariously through Charlie.

CONAN: And he says, at one point in the film, I come from the only congressional district in the country where people don't want anything, which is why I'm able to vote yes on everybody else's bills and I've got the biggest collection of chits in the United States Congress.

Mr. FROST: Well, they did wanted few things, and Charlie did bring home some bacon to the - to his district. That was a little bit of an exaggeration in the movie. But by and large, they didn't want a lot of things, and he did have chits from people all over all the country, particularly from some of them were liberal members, many of them from the northeast, and he called in all of those chits on this - for this one issue to be able to get the weapons for the rebels in Afghanistan.

CONAN: One of the things he does is arrange, along with the sort of rogue CIA agent by the name of Gust - I'm going to blank on the last name, but - as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. And Gust Avrakotos - anyway, they go over and meet with an Israeli arms dealer to try to get the funding…

Mr. FROST: Actually, I believe he was a Mossad agent. I don't think he was an arms dealer. And he was there at - I went to a preview, and Zvi Rafiah, the fellow who - that was the name of the guy - he was actually there.

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. FROST: And I had met him before and I saw him and said a few words to him.

CONAN: Well, this is the scene where they - brings Zvi on board at the same time, he's being - well, it's a long complicated story. But this is where they bring him on board, a scene with Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson, Ken Stott as Zvi, the Mossad agent, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos.

(Soundbite of movie "Charlie Wilson's War)

Mr. KEN STOTT (Actor): (As Zvi Rafiah) What happens now?

Mr. HANKS: (As Charlie Wilson) You come with us to Cairo.

Mr. STOTT: (As Zvi Rafiah) This meeting is going to be unprofessional.

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Gust Avrakotos) Absolutely. We'll be talking to deputy defense minister while his boss gets a belly dance from a friend of Charlie's.

Mr. STOTT: (As Zvi Rafiah) What?

Mr. HANKS: (As Charlie Wilson) A good friend of mine. Back in Texas, she's a well-known belly dancer. It's always been her dream to perform in Egypt so she's our way in. While she's dancing for the defense minister, we'll be talking to the deputy.

Mr. STOTT: (As Zvi Rafiah) Oh, my God.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Gust Avrakotos) I suppose it'd be good.

CONAN: And…

Mr. FROST: I actually met her. I didn't see her perform. But he had her in Washington one time. She was in Fort Worth, Texas.

CONAN: And she was good, at least in the movie, and…

Mr. FROST: Yes. Yes. And I think she was supposed to be good. I never saw her perform, but I did meet her with Charlie. He brought her around one time in, maybe, one of his birthday parties. He had these big birthday bashes every year.

CONAN: So the deal was to get the Israelis involved, the Egyptians, the Saudis and the Pakistanis, who were all funneling these Soviet-made weapons. There were warehouses full of them in Egypt at the time. I guess it should be pointed out that there was another covert war going along at the same time, one in Central America, and Oliver North was doing similar shenanigans…

Mr. FROST: But there's a big difference. Congress actually passed a law prohibiting aid to the Contras. And so what North was doing was violating a statute of Congress. Congress never passed a law saying we couldn't get aid to the rebels in Afghanistan. There was never anything considered by Congress on that subject other through the Foreign Ops Appropriations Committee, where Charlie was a member.

CONAN: Charlie was certainly bending the law, individuals - even members of Congress are not supposed to be making foreign policy.

Mr. FROST: Well, that's correct, but he was a member of the subcommittee that handled all the money on - for foreign aid, the Foreign Ops Subcommittee. But it's a big difference because Oliver North actually violated a specific statute passed by Congress.

CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners in on the conversation. We're talking with former representative Martin Frost about former representative Charlie Wilson and the film "Charlie Wilson's War."

And let's start with - this is John(ph), John with us from Cape May in New Jersey.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, gentlemen. I'm interested - I have yet to see the movie, but I'm excited to. I was wondering if, former congressman, you felt that there was either some sort of political agenda behind the film or if the media itself could possibly construe a political agenda behind the film.

Mr. FROST: I don't think so because the fellow who wrote the film, who's dead now…

CONAN: George Crile, yeah.

Mr. FROST: …he actually was - he was a producer for "60 Minutes." And I saw the "60 Minutes" segment which was produced years ago about this. And if you remember the opening scene of the movie, there's a banner that says Charlie did it, and it's in the back of a hall where the CIA meeting was being held. Well, that was actually the title. That was the headline on the "60 Minutes" piece which was at least 10 or 15 years ago.

So I don't think there was any, but I think this was just a heck of a story to be told, and that CBS was the one who really broke the story. They were the ones who got the story first.

CONAN: That Charlie Wilson - the Charlie-did-it quote was from Zia ul-Haq. Then, the president of Pakistan asked how the Afghan guerillas could possibly have defeated the Soviet army.

Mr. FROST: It was the last interview before he was killed, before the president of Pakistan was killed.

CONAN: In a plane crash, yeah.

Mr. FROST: And they had this interview. It was the lead-in - I remember seeing the "60 Minutes" piece. I was watching that, Sunday. And I saw it, and there was this lead-in with this quote, "Charlie did it." And in fact, that was the quote that was on the banner, although they never referred to, they never explained the banner that was in the back of the CIA hall.

CONAN: There is another quote - and by the way, thanks very much for the call.

JOHN: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: There's another quote, which I think comes from Tom Hanks, saying: you've got a bunch of Democrats - Tom Hanks, Aaron Sorkin and Mike Nichols, who directed the movie - making a film about a Democrat who won the Cold War, and that people might find a political agenda.

Mr. FROST: Well, who helped win the Cold War? I don't think anyone suggests that this alone ended the Cold War. And Reagan gets a fair amount of credit also for ending the Cold War because of the pressure that he put on the Soviet Union.

CONAN: Not in the film, he doesn't.

Mr. FROST: Yeah. No. No. Not in the film. But I mean, everybody understands that. But this became the Soviet's Vietnam. This - the Soviet Union was disgraced in the world's eyes because it was driven out of Afghanistan by a bunch of ragtag rebels. Now, they had good weapons but they lost. And it was clearly one of the things that I - that everyone believes, led to the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union.

CONAN: We're talking with Martin Frost about "Charlie Wilson's War." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And speaking just for a moment about Ronald Reagan, Charlie's obsession through the film is to find some weapon that will be effective at knocking down Soviet helicopters…

Mr. FROST: That's right.

CONAN: …it proves to be the stinger missile. And that was a decision made by President Reagan against the advice of his joint chiefs of staff, against the National Security Council and just about everybody else. A very courageous decision.

Mr. FROST: That's correct. And remember, Charlie is an interesting political character. He was a domestic liberal who was a foreign policy hawk, who was a defense hawk. And they don't really talk about this, but Charlie makes some reference to this in the movie, just in passing. But he had a strong civil rights record, he had a strong pro-labor record, he was pro-choice, and his district was pretty conservative. But the way he got away with all those votes. One was providing good service to his district, and two being very strongly against the Soviet Union, being a foreign policy hawk. It was an interesting blend that permitted him to survive politically.

CONAN: Let's get Travis(ph) on the line, Travis calling us from South Bend in Indiana.

TRAVIS (Caller): Yeah. I just have a one quick comment. This man was the one that helped arm the rebels in the Middle East, correct?

Mr. FROST: Well, let me - this has come up a lot. And what he did was to help arm the rebels who were fighting the Soviets. And then, Charlie advocated that we ought to provide economic aid to the Muslims who ultimately took over the country. And we didn't do that. We didn't take his advice, and so then the Taliban, the extreme element of the Muslims, took over Afghanistan.

But Charlie wasn't helping the Taliban and he's certainly wasn't helping al-Qaida, he was trying to help the Afghan people. Unfortunately, our government then turned its back on the Afghan people after we helped drive the Soviets out. And that's when the Taliban took over.

TRAVIS: So we had no follow-through then?

Mr. FROST: That's right. We had no follow-through, and the last quote in the movie is a quote from Charlie. And I won't say exactly what he said.

CONAN: You paraphrase it.

Mr. FROST: Paraphrase it, that we dropped the ball by not providing economic aid.

TRAVIS: Okay. I see. Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: And thanks for the call, Travis.

TRAVIS: No problem.

CONAN: In that regard, given the way the media works - this was 20 years ago - today, with Fox News, with CNN being a much more complete organization now than it was then; the 24-hour news cycle and all that, do you think Charlie Wilson could have survived the repeated scandals he's found himself in?

Mr. FROST: No. I don't believe that someone like Charlie could have survived in the current ethics climate. I think the 24-hour, all-news cable shows would've put an end to Charlie's career before he was actually able to do all this.

CONAN: And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Mr. FROST: Well, you know, I've started off as a journalist before I was a congressman. I have a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, worked as a magazine reporter in this town a very long time ago. I - having a free and open press is very important to the functioning democracy. There are some tradeoffs. And I think someone like a Charlie Wilson probably could not survive in the current climate.

CONAN: Congressman Frost, I wanted to thank you. Before we let you go though, I know you're president of the America Votes project. Tell us a little bit about that.

Mr. FROST: Well, it's a coalition of progressive groups that are concerned about turning out the largest voter turnout possible among liberals, among progressives in the coming election. It's organizations that are involved in women's rights and labor environmental groups. And they were active in 15 states, and I'm doing that in addition to - I'm in a law firm here in town also.

And so, it's kind of a way to be involved in politics without having to be involved for a particular presidential candidate. I've done that in the past. I went to Iowa for Gephardt in 1988; it was minus-30, wind chill, the whole month of January. And I told Gephardt and others, afterwards, I'm not going back to Iowa for the caucuses.

So this gives me a way to be involved without having to be involved for a particular candidate.

CONAN: Martin Frost, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

We've been talking about the film "Charlie Wilson's War," which stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman, out in theaters this past weekend.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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'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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