Charlie Wilson’s War was Mike Nichols’s final film as a director, completed before he passed away in 2014 from a heart attack. His reputation was made entirely on his first four features—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge—all of which came out in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. However, his real love was the theatre, so he was always able to attract the best actors possible.
Aaron Sorkin wrote the script for Charlie Wilson’s War, and from all accounts it was decidedly different from the film that was made in the end. It was meant to be a savage satire in the vein of Dr. Strangelove, exposing the US government’s Operation Cyclone, which supported Afghan mujahadeen during the Soviet–Afghan War. This operation in turn helped create the Taliban, then Al Qaeda and of course eventually led to the terrorist attack on 9/11. It centres on the actions of Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, who wanted to help anti-Communist rebels and set this string of actions in motion.
However, Nichols (and especially Tom Hanks, who had been tapped for the film) decided for whatever reason to tone it down so much that any connection to the real-life events was nearly non-existent in the final film. Tom Hanks is reported as saying that he “just can’t deal with this 9/11 thing,” even though after 9/11 Charlie Wilson himself even admitted in a television interview, “This was as much my fault as anybody’s.” Like the other biopics he wrote, Steve Jobs and The Social Network, Sorkin’s original script was warts and all, but supposedly the real Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring (Julia Robert’s role in the film) threatened legal action. Hanks and Nichols clearly didn’t want to offend the subjects so they took everything out that might have been a problem, and even toned down the Congressman’s cocaine problem in the film. Wilson attended the premiere and liked the film), and although Hanks is never seen snorting coke, Wilson actually never objected to it.
The finished film isn’t without any redeeming qualities Tom Hanks is fun as this lovable lad who seems more interesting in strippers and coke than his actual job. Philip Seymour Hoffman absolutely slays as Wilson’s right-hand man, the CIA operative Gust Avrakotos, and just reminds of the great loss to the world of acting when he died in 2014 from a speedball overdose. Julia Roberts as Herring is fun—Herring was a Texas socialite who was having an affair with Wilson, and helped enormously in the US support for the mujahedeen. She is also deeply right-wing, and takes being in bed with political enemies to a new high. The rest of cast includes the always excellent Ned Blatty and some names who were then relative newcomers, like Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. John Slattery also appears as the CIA director of European operations. Slattery had been around for a long time, but only started to attract bigger roles after appearing as Roger Sterling in Mad Men.
Charlie Wilson’s War is a textbook example of how untrue films based on a “true story” can be, and how money (it ended up costing $75,000,000) and politics can completely undermine the original intent of a film. Ironically, I think Tom Hanks would probably be more willing now to do a film that was closer to the original script: maybe 9/11 was just hitting too much of a raw nerve at the time. It’s an example of how “liberal” Hollywood can make a film that is actually utterly in bed with the people who it is supposedly criticizing. It’s a shame that Sorkin, who is from all accounts quite the force of nature, didn’t fight tooth and nail to make the film he wrote. However, he was happy that Nichols agreed to direct it, so it seemed like he was too enamored with the prospect of making a film with a great director than with telling the truth.
The disc includes two short featurettes, one on the making of the film and one on the “true story.”