3 Stars — Disturbing

There are many things about the warring madness of humanity that are disturbing. But one of the most disquieting is the way that roles quickly shift as our allies become our enemies. For reasons that should be obvious, joining together with a portion of humanity to fight some other group of humans has proven itself ineffective in producing lasting peace. The exponential result of using evil to fight evil is that evil turns on those who use it with increasing strength until the good that was hoped for is even further removed from reach. That is the lesson in Mike Nichols’ film Charlie Wilson’s War.

Based on the true story of former Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Texas (Tom Hanks), this film version plays up his true-life reputation as “Good-Time Charlie.” Presenting him as a congressman who had little legislative achievement until he is manipulated into getting involved in the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan by increasing U.S. covert involvement on the side of the Afghan resistance, the truth is that Wilson was an effective lawmaker who had served in naval intelligence at the Pentagon and had become an expert in the Soviet military. But it is also clear that Wilson was not the typical conservative Texan and his personal life was not exemplary.

As told by George Crile and modified for the screen by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), this story describes Wilson as an empty, partying congressman who only hires voluptuous aides and has an unmerited position on the committee that oversees the classified activities of the government’s covert agencies, including the CIA. Because of this position, and his uncharacteristic concern when he sees the Afghan resistance, or Mujahedin, willing to die in a greatly outgunned struggle with the Soviets, he decides to get involved in some small way. It is then that Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) seduces and manipulates him into doing far more.

Although in real life Joanne Herring was Wilson’s fiancé, in the film she is presented as a hypocritical fundamentalist Christian who wants to use the Afghan people to fight against the godless Soviets.  This thinking of the struggle with the Soviets as a Holy War in which God takes sides is one of the most disturbing aspects of the film, and of modern politics.

The prophetic role in this now self-described Holy War is a truth-telling but unrefined agent named Gust Avrakotos (masterfully played by Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Having been a part of the CIA for several decades, Avrakotos is aware of the larger issues of the war.  As we see the effect on the Afghan fighters as they are given sophisticated weaponry and training, we realize that very soon these same fighters became the Taliban, which gave sanctuary to the al-Qaeda training camps of Osama bin Laden. Although Avrakotos never directly says this in the film, it is clear that he sees that day approaching long before it arrived.

The belief that winning the Cold War with the Soviets would bring peace has proven itself to be untrue.  The belief that winning any war will change our hearts as human beings is also untrue.  What is needed is compassionate care for every human being so we all know and appreciate every person’s value.  But when Wilson tried in real life to get even a portion of the funding for schools that Congress allocated for war, he was ineffective.  We are now reaping the results of our short-sighted thinking.


Why do you believe Congress would not help rebuild schools in newly liberated Afghanistan when half of the population was under the age of 14? Why would it spend hundreds of millions of dollars for war instead?

The personal life of then-Rep. Charlie Wilson was less than exemplary. Do you believe this matters? Do you believe the film needed to show the graphic nature of his immorality?

The use of God to motivate Christians to go to war is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Why do you think people do not listen when Jesus teaches for us to “love our enemies”?

Some of the military support the United States gave to the Afghan resistance was passed on to al-Qaeda, which then attacked our nation on Sept. 11, 2001. Do you believe evil always comes back to destroy its perpetrators? Why or why not?

Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.