I’m used to talking with filmmakers and actors and celebrities of all stripes. Sure, it’s intimidating to ask questions of Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg or Paul Walker, but I’m a film guy – I feel like I belong in that situation. When I got on the phone with Charlie Wilson I knew he was someone I had no business interviewing.
As a congressman Charlie Wilson worked tirelessly to funnel money and equipment to the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Wilson did all of this in secret, and thanks to his work the Russians were soundly defeated and forced to retreat; this is certainly one of the key historical moments in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. It was also a key moment in the creation of our modern world; while Wilson was able to get massive amounts of money to fight the Russians, he couldn’t get the money needed to rebuild Afghanistan, leaving the nation open to fundamentalist maniacs.
The story was told in the film Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts. With that cast, a script by Aaron Sorkin and Mike Nichols behind the camera, the movie was the de facto front runner for Best Picture last year… until people saw it. The film is funny and filled with great performances (Hoffman is particularly brilliant), but it’s not Oscar material. The weight of expectations crushed it, and a movie that should have been a hit sunk away. Now it’s out on DVD – order it here – and you have the chance to catch up on this little-known chapter of American history.
Which brings me to Charlie Wilson himself. I got on the phone with him last week; in his 70s, Wilson still sounds as vital and energetic as ever. Which makes it all the weirder that he ended up on the phone with a guy from CHUD.com.
With the passing of Jimmy Stewart, Tom Hanks is the ultimate person to have play you in a movie.
I’d say you’re right. I was very, very thrilled to have him portray me.
Did you work with Tom to capture who you are, your mannerisms and everything, or did you let him go off and do his own thing?
I let him do his own thing. We spent a significant amount of time together, but never in the context of the movie, always in the context of talking about baseball or his kids or whatever I was into. But we didn’t spend any time delving into my personality or anything like that.
How about screenwriter Aaron Sorkin? Did you work with him while he was writing the film?
With Aaron, I liked him very much as a person, and the involvement took place after the script was written, with places where I thought it should be tweaked a little here and tweaked a little there. Sometimes my tweaks got in, sometimes they didn’t. It was at the mercy of the director whether or not changes got made.
And you were okay with that, with someone else telling your story and not always taking your input?
I was. I was. I knew that was what I was buying into from the start.
I understand that you represented a dry county in Texas. You were not exactly a dry person.
Well, I don’t know whether you know it or not, Devin, but people drink in dry counties. I know you’re shocked.
Having your own escapades in Washington, as we see in the movie, what was your relationship like with your constituents? How did they view you?
I was their own rascal, sort of the designated sinner. My constituents appreciated the fact that I was a pretty good Congressman and took care of all their problems. They also appreciated the fact that I consistently entertained them.
One of the most amazing things about this story is how most people didn’t know anything about it. When it was all said and done, when you had helped get the Soviets out of Afghanistan, did you think the truth would come out one day or did you think this was going to be a footnote in history?
I thought it would be a footnote in history and no one would ever know about it. I hoped historians would dig it up when they wrote the history of the 20th century, because this was a significant happening in the history of the 20th century. Fortunately George Crile found the story and wrote the book.
In the film there’s a point made about how we fucked up the end game in Afghanistan, how we let the country descend into anarchy because we didn’t want to get involved in reconstruction. Do you see that happening again with our current military presence in the Middle East?
Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen in Iraq, but I certainly see the possibility of it happening there. If we were to get out – which I think we should – but if we were to get out in a logical and planned withdrawl next year, we would certainly owe them reconstruction since we blew their country up. On the other hand, I don’t know if they would let us or not. I don’t think reconstruction – we can’t afford to do it if we need 160 soldiers to reconstruct a refinery.
As someone who is an expert on Afghanistan, what do you think the possibilities for that country are? The government remains under siege from the Taliban – do you think there’s a positive prognosis for Afghanistan’s future?
I do, especially if we could get finished with Iraq. We obviously don’t have enough soldiers in Afghanistan and if the pressures of Iraq were off our soldiers could be reinforced. If we did that, the NATO forces would all reinforce. Afghanistan, most people think it’s the good war over there, that’s the one we should be fighting. That’s where the guy who blew up the Trade Center are, that’s where the guys who planned 9/11 are, in the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. If we had the troop numbers we could get them; we’d probably have bin Laden by now.
What about the hearts and minds? Can we win the hearts and minds of the Afghani people in the face of the fundamentalism that has ruled that country for so long?
Yes, it is possible. We have to do it. We have to do it and we have to put the resources there to do it. I think most Americans would support that; the people you hear criticizing the Iraq war support the Afghan war. The Democrats all support the Afghan war.