RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
If it's possible to make a rollicking good story about a congressional subcommittee funding a secret war, then director Mike Nichols has done it.
"Charlie Wilson's War" is a dark comedy based on the shenanigans of one East Texas congressman. In the 1980s, Charlie Wilson managed to funnel stinger missiles and other powerful weapons to Afghanistan for the mujahideen who were fighting the invading Soviets. Ultimately, a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan would help bring down the Soviet Union and end the Cold War.
Tom Hanks plays Charlie. Julia Roberts plays a Texas socialite and rabid anti-communist - here in her bedroom seducing the liberal congressman into taking up the Afghan cause.
(Soundbite of movie, "Charlie Wilson's War")
Ms. JULIA ROBERTS (Actor): (As Joanne Herring) You sit at the intersection of the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA. You meet in a soundproof 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.
MONTAGNE: Tom Hanks and Mike Nichols sat down with us to talk about "Charlie Wilson's War."
Let's start with Charlie, who we meet in the movie, lounging in a hot tub in Las Vegas, surrounded by a couple of exotic dancers and some drugs. I'll start with you, Tom Hanks. Who was Charlie Wilson?
Mr. HANKS: Well, he was a guy that didn't have any problems hanging out in a hot tub in Vegas with some exotic dancers. He was a notorious party boy, ladies' man, playboy. He would not hide the fact that he was a congressman. He would walk in to Caesars Palace and say, Hi, I'm Congressman Charlie Wilson from Texas. I'm supposed to be here for a big party up in a luxury suite. Which way do I go?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HANKS: And that would be it...
Mr. MIKE NICHOLS (Director, "Charlie Wilson's War"): Yeah.
Mr. HANKS: ...and all the rest of the night would take care of itself.
MONTAGNE: He was, though - Charlie Wilson was an entirely unlikely champion of Muslim freedom fighters in a country that one could presume none of his constituents back in East Texas would have been able to find on the map.
Mr. NICHOLS: This is where you've gone right to the crux of the question, which is how did this - how did this guy get interested - isn't that your picture of what happened?
Mr. HANKS: Yeah. And Charlie loved the Davids of the world as opposed to the Goliaths. And in this case, when he did see this ragtag group of people fighting the Soviet army, he identified with them as the underdogs. And he found a cause.
MONTAGNE: Charlie is one member of a colorful trio backing the mujahideen's fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. There is Texas socialite, sixth richest woman in Texas, Joanne Herring, played by Julia Roberts. And then there's this CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Tell us about Gust.
Mr. HANKS: Well, Gust is the real deal - was the real deal. He was a guy who would - I think he probably strangled guys in darkened alleys. And he fought dirty, and he did dirty things, and he was proud of all of his skills.
MONTAGNE: You know, when he first meets Charlie Wilson, there's this little exchange - and we can play the clip - where they spar over the notion of who they are.
(Soundbite of movie, "Charlie Wilson's War")
Mr. HANKS: (As Charlie Wilson) How did a guy like you get into the agency?
Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Gust Avrakotos) What do you mean, a street guy?
Mr. HANKS: (As Charlie Wilson) You ain't James Bond.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Gust) You ain't Thomas Jefferson, so let's call it even.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HANKS: (As Charlie Wilson) Deal.
MONTAGNE: So they're meeting, and they're getting together, circles back to this idea of these unlikely characters.
Mr. NICHOLS: One more thing, I think. I think they're unlikely characters and they both happened to be guys who tell the truth casually and constantly. I think that's why they became such good friends, and that's why the friendship went very fast, because they started right out with the truth.
MONTAGNE: Charlie Wilson managed to turn a $5 million budget, the allocation for anything to be done in Afghanistan - jumps this budget up to a total of a billion dollars.
Mr. HANKS: A year.
MONTAGNE: A year.
Mr. HANKS: Yes.
MONTAGNE: What was the key to that?
Mr. HANKS: Really the desire to do it. Charlie with the Machiavellian aspects of how to get money out of these subcommittees, and Gust with places to put it. There was actually one very particular weekend when Charlie discovered that there was something like $300 million left over in the naval budget for the year. And from Friday to Sunday night he and Gust worked on doling out $5 million to a guy in Hong Kong, $10 million to a program in Nepal, another $40 million to program here. And they just went and made sure that it was all spoken for in the actual naval budget, but in fact it was all going in order to provide arms and I guess mules to the Afghans. And that's it. So the - they did it because there was a way in order to do it, and no one was going to pay any attention to them.
MONTAGNE: The jaw-dropping thing about Charlie Wilson was how much he managed to pull together this entire scheme by dint of going around and bringing together these unlikely allies - Saudi Arabia, Israeli arms dealer, Egypt - would not have been talking to each other normally in the same room.
Mr. HANKS: No. I think there was literally one unmarked plane that flew from Tel Aviv to Cairo once a day, or maybe it was once a week...
Mr. NICHOLS: Which they took.
Mr. HANKS: Which is a plane that they took when they went to - when they went to have the meetings in Cairo. It's an example of how, I think, personal contact meant everything. Charlie knew these guys. Charlie talked to all these guys. If they were friends of Charlie's, they must be okay.
MONTAGNE: You know, sex and foreign policy are entwined in this movie, you know. And there's a belly dancer at the center of some of these deals.
Mr. NICHOLS: Yes, and we met her. This was all real.
Mr. HANKS: She was the most famous belly dancer in all of Houston.
Mr. NICHOLS: And she was an airline hostess. And some of the time that we were doing it, you'd have to sort of say to yourself, remember, this actually happened because it seems very far out a lot of the time.
MONTAGNE: This story is a tricky one, obviously, to put onscreen, very complicated in a sense, in a political way, knowing what we know now - Osama bin Laden emerged from this grand CIA operation. I'm wondering if the audiences - or if you thought about that - if the audience is so charmed by Charlie and the exciting story - because it's a very exciting story - will get the darkness that's there.
Mr. NICHOLS: It's sort of what the picture is about, that you don't know the consequences of any act and you don't know good things from bad things when they're coming at you, and sometimes not for 10 or 20 years, or ever, because good and bad things keep turning into one another. The complicatedness of it is the truth. All these questions is the best we could do. We could pose questions and not offer answers. But if we could ask a few more questions about it, which I think, I hope we did, then we'll be a little better off.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Mike Nichols directed the movie "Charlie Wilson's War," which opens tomorrow. Tom Hanks stars as Charlie.