Review of “Charlie Wilson’s War”: Please Read the Book… But Do Watch the Movie

Posted on December 24, 2007
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Books, Foreign Relations, History, Politics, TV, Movies & Theatre
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Adil Najam

Moview PosterI saw Charlie Wilson’s War, the movie featuring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, today.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of the book by the same name on which movie is based. I enjoyed the movie… a lot. Judging by their reactions and response so did most of the others in the theater (nearly all Americans). The applause, the oohs, the aahs, the gasps, and the laughs all came at the right spot. The movie, which has garnered 5 Golden Globe nominations, was good entertainment and its message was powerful and came across clearly.

Having said that, the movie was no where nearly as gripping as the book. To me – having grown up in Pakistan in the era and under the shadow of the Afghanistan war – the movie is to the book what water flowing from a tap is to the Niagara Falls. Please do not get me wrong. This is not a criticism of the movie. I have already said that it is a good movie. This is a compliment for the book, which is a great book.

So my advice to you is: Do go and see the movie and ask your friends to do so too. But, please read the book. Consider the movie to be no more than a trailer for the book.

There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind by now that I really like the book. In fact, within the very first week of launching this blog, I wrote not one but two posts on Charlie Wilson’s War. The first post was information about the (then) forthcoming movie and the second was about the book itself with excerpts about its context and some reviews. It has been one of my favorite gifts to give to students, colleagues and friends. So, obviously, I was looking forward to the movie.

Only two days ago (before I saw the movie) I remarked, half-seriously, to a friend that in some ways this book simply cannot be converted into a movie. And maybe it should not have been. The book is way too nuanced. Way too intricate. Way too close to reality to ever turn into a movie. Popular movies have to cast wide nets. Their messages have to be clear. Their story-lines simple. The morality straightforward. Their message unambiguous. Charlie Wilson’s War (the book or the reality) was none of these things. Frankly speaking, I was afraid that in trying to make it so the movie would compromise the integrity of the true story of the Afghanistan War and of the US and Pakistan role in it that is told in the book.

Luckily, the movie adopted the right approach by not even trying to capture all the nuances and all the intricate stories that are woven into the book. It could not have done them justice and therefore did not even try to. This, I think was wise. It tells only one stream of the stories that defines the book. The stream focused on Charlie Wilson. It tells that story well and probably that is the part of the story that best resonates with US audiences. But a movie could probably not even do full justice to Charlie Wilson, the man. Here, for example, is a glimpse of the real Charlie Wilson (and the real Joanne Herring):

There are other streams of stories in the book that movie barely hints at which are actually central to the book. The story of Gust Avrakotos, the CIA agent could have been a movie in itself. The story of the Israeli – Saudi – Egyptian connections to the Afghanistan war are just hinted at but are grippingly detailed in the book. Like Gust, the character of Joanne Herring (then Pakistan’s honorary Consul General in Houston) is central to the movie but does not come alive in its intricacies as it does in the book. The story of how complex the weapon development issue was seemed to have been lost. The Pakistan story- either the Zia ul Huq angle or the ISI angle – although detailed in the book are skipped in the movie. And most importantly, the Afghan Mujahideen are central characters in the book but only background visuals in the movie.

Real life and actors

All of this, I think, is to be expected and not necessarily bad. But all of this is reason why people should also read the book. Go, watch the movie and let that whet your appetite for reading the book. The one thing you must not do is to assume that because you have seen the movie you know what the book is like, or even about. That is nearly never true and certainly not true in this case.

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Of course, since I am rather close to the subject matter I found the little mistakes that some would not even notice to be annoying. For example, most vehicles in Pakistan are right-hand side drive not left-hand side drive as in the movie. The Old Presidency where Charlie Wilson met Zia-ul-Haq did not look anything like what it was depicted. The military advisers to Zia (who is not very well played by Om Puri) shown in the movie acted rather cartoonishly. The camels shot outside Peshawar might have been misplaced. Charlie Wilson’s interest in Afghanistan was never as straight-forward as the movie makes them out to be. The fact that the only Afghan Mujahideen group mentioned in Ahmad Shah Masood’s even though history and the book in question has far more detail of other groups. And the ending of the movie seemed to have internalized post 9/11 realities far more than was warranted and there is little evidence that either Charlie Wilson or Gust Avrakotos understood the ramifications as much as the movie seems to suggest.

Charlie Wilson's War

All of that notwithstanding, and my reverence for the book as it is, I have to agree with the reviewer at the New York Times who write a glowing review of the movie:

Fun is this movie’s unlikely and persuasive motto. If it’s the best politically themed movie to come around in a while, that may be because the director, Mike Nichols, and the screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, grasp that politics, for all its seriousness, is an essentially comic undertaking. Their film is never glib or flippant, but instead shows a lightness of touch and a swiftness of attack — 96 minutes to drink some cocktails, make some deals and send the Russians packing — that stand in welcome contrast to the plodding, somber earnestness of some recent movies I will tactfully refrain from naming.

Not that discretion is necessarily the better part of valor. And it’s hard to imagine a hero as indiscreet as Charlie Wilson, a Democrat who represented Texas’s Second Congressional District in the House of Representatives. Mr. Wilson, who retired from the House in 1996, is played with sly, rascally charisma by Tom Hanks. It is always a pleasure to see Mr. Hanks play against clean-cut type, and here he has the devilish smile of a middle-aged playboy who has woken up in a long-lost guilt-free sequel to “Bachelor Party” …

It’s quite a yarn, and the filmmakers relate it with clarity and verve. The film’s high spirits are inseparable from its sober purpose, which is to present a gentle corrective to the idea that American heroism resides only in square-jawed, melancholy stoicism. That has been the preferred post-9/11 stance, and there is some evident nostalgia in “Charlie Wilson’s War” for the simpler world of the 1980s, when the bad guys flew MIGs and American political life was perhaps a touch less sanctimonious.

But there is nonetheless a bracing, cheering present-day moral to be found in Charlie Wilson’s story, a reminder that high principles are not incompatible with the pleasure principle. The good guys are the ones who know how to have a good time, and who counter the somber certainties of totalitarianism with the conviction that fun is woven into the fabric of freedom.

At the risk of repeating myself, I do fear that my enthusiasm for the book might be mistaken for a lack of enthusiasm for the movie. It is not so. Let me end by repeating what I said at beginning of the post: “I enjoyed the movie… Do go and see the movie and ask your friends to do so too. But, please read the book. Consider the movie to be no more than a trailer for the book.”

26 Comments on “Review of “Charlie Wilson’s War”: Please Read the Book… But Do Watch the Movie”

  1. Daktar says:
    December 24th, 2007 2:14 am

    Am planning to see the movie soon, so will give my views then. But yes the book was a great read. A total thriller.

  2. Atelier says:
    December 24th, 2007 2:22 am

    Charlie Wilson’s War (book) is one of the best accounts of how it all started. I cannot comment much on the movie as I have not seen it yet, other than the odd few promo clips on net.

    Let us not forget that Charlie Wilson’s War (the book) in spite of being a real to life and academically correct account of the Afghan war is still an american side of the story and with all due respect.

    What is highly desirable is that retired members of the ISI who were around at that time need to share their versions and with full references and academic honesty, unlike Beartrap (By Brig Yousuf) and few other odd writings from lackluster charlatans which were nothing short of hogwash and cheap attempts at claiming glory.

    Again there are people who were dishonest and made fortunes out of the Afghan war and these need to be exposed and even to the extent of being court martialed posthumously and the loot recovered from their progeny. Someone has to account for all those missing samsonite suitcases filled with dollars that were offloaded from C5 Galaxy and C 130s in the early hours of morning and stored at various locations in Rawalpindi

    And then we have people from the same ISI who were not only dedicated, passionate and honest to the core BUT were never recognized by thier own country. From amongst these we have people who single handedly laid the foundation of Afghan Desk at the Presidency which later mushroomede into the full fledged multi billion dollar Afghan operation.

    We should have the guts to identify our TRUE heroes and weed out the shysters and charlatans from the annals of history.

  3. Watan Aziz says:
    December 24th, 2007 3:18 am

    I will not give away the last 1 minute of the movie.

    It is priceless.

    The last sub-committee battle that Charlie Wilson fought in vain fast forwards to everything that has gone off the tracks today.

  4. Rahim Khan says:
    December 24th, 2007 3:46 am

    While the movie is charming and entertaining, plays big on how Mighty Americans got best of Soviets, in reality there was no plan for “Endgame”. While Americans take credit for ejecting Soviets from Afghanistan, it was far more complex effort and many players played big roles.

    As soon as Soviets were defeated, Americans failed to capitalize on it, and left Afghanistan high and dry. Afghan civil war of 90s and Taliban are product of that poor vision
    Today Americans are trying to clean up the mess they left, but this time, game plan is not working. Pakistan is now paying a huge price for militarization of Afghanistan as Taliban have declared war on Pakistani Army.

    Most interesting and suspiciously clever development of the year was how Taliban changed its tactics, instead of fighting American Army, today they are fighting Pakistan army. Heat is on Pakistan and its forces now. I am afraid this time there wont be many charming Hollywood movies about war against Taliban.

  5. Akif Nizam says:
    December 24th, 2007 9:54 am

    The History Channel is also running a 2-hour special about the “True Story of Charlie Wilson” which I watched last week. Fascinating stuff. A lot of time you are told these incredible stories and you wonder how much of that is just wishful thinking and an product of somebody’s imagination, so at first I was a little skeptical about it. But the special ends with a journalist asking Ziaul Haq how the Afghans were able to defeat the largest army in the world and his response was “Charlie did it “. The same words were then repeated by Hamid Gul and that pretty much convinced me of the veracity of the events.

  6. RJ says:
    December 24th, 2007 11:06 am

    Mr. Adil, after reading your long post the only thing I understood is the book better than movie. With all due respect it is true with any novel; a movie can not do the justice with a book, recent example “Da vinci code” by “Dan Brown”, or all time class “War and piece” by “Leo Tolstoy” to name a few.

    BTW in many people opinion, this novel is a bogus attempt as usual to get all the credit of Afghan war to Americans and portraying charlie wilson as Rambo even though the reality is much more complex than that. In reality and in common sense the credit to end the war goes to Soviet Union then president Gorbachev (who ordered to end the war merely on economic reasons) and Pakistani Army who defended, not won the war bravely, considering the size and the might of the enemy. BTW don’t forget the former head of West German intelligence presented the brick from the Berlin Wall to Hameed Gul not Charlie Wilson with a thanks to blow the first strike; and with all due respect I trust a neutral country intelligence chief much more than a biased American writer. BTW some reader saying he believes on Charlie Wilson war because Late Zial-ul-Haq (I have a great respect for him) had given him credit too. I bet it was just a political stunt by late Zia-Ul-Haq; he must have given this answer to an American journalists and most probably a visit to USA; correct me if I am wrong.

  7. Daktar says:
    December 24th, 2007 11:26 am

    Dear RJ, I am surprised when you say “BTW in many people opinion, this novel is a bogus attempt as usual to get all the credit of Afghan war to Americans and portraying charlie wilson as Rambo even though the reality is much more complex than that.”

    Because the book actually does not do that at all. Maybe the movie does, but the beauty of the book is that it does not simplify the complexity. In fact, the book is mostly about the official US policy-makers were not interested in Afghanistan and as for Charlie WIlson, the point of the book I thought was that he believed in the Afghans themselves and it is they who emerge as the heroes. Like any book it can only focus on some aspects this one is very honest in saying that it focusses on Charlie Wilson’s role but highlighting other aspects without focussing on them.

    Anyhow, that was my reading of the book. Please point us towards the reviews by these people you say think otherwise. I would love to read those views and find our how they come to that conclusion.

  8. Josh H. says:
    December 24th, 2007 11:46 am

    Nice review man. Good to get a Pakistani perspective. I saw it and loved it. Hanks is great and I think Philip Seymour Hoffman shoudl win an Oscar. Also great dialouge movie. Have not read the book but after this recommendation I will.

  9. Qureshi says:
    December 24th, 2007 11:54 am

    Does anyone know when this will come to Pakistan. Or is it already in Lahore or Karachi? I think its subject it sch that many wil be interested in it, like mw.

  10. tejbir says:
    December 24th, 2007 2:29 pm

    Someone recommended this book to me but I forgot about it. Haven’t come across the movie yet, maybe cause for the last close to one year time is a scarcity.
    But i think i’ll watch the movie at the first chance i get.

  11. December 24th, 2007 6:41 pm

    I really waited for this movie to come out due to my interest in this topic……… and the movie was not that disappointing but it did seem to me that it was greatly summarized. So I do plan on reading the book as soon as I get some time.

    Adil…….. in terms of the camels and how Pakistan/Afghanistan border was shown….. the mistake was due to the fact it was all shot in Morroco and not in Pakistan at all. Hence it was not that a 100% depiction……. looking at many of these movies, I am starting to wonder why these people don’t do full research and spend some time and money in these things!! unless they spent all the money on getting tom hanks, julia roberts and Philip Seymore!!

    Does anyone have any links to the Documentary that was mentioned in the comments. I saw a clip on yahoo with the actual footage as well. It would be good to get hands on that!!

  12. Mutazalzaluzzaman Tarar says:
    December 24th, 2007 8:34 pm

    Om Puri was terrible as were all the generals in the scene with him. I was also waiting to see if they’d mention OBL as one of their spawn but they stopped at Ahmed Shah Masood.

  13. RJ says:
    December 24th, 2007 8:38 pm

    @Daktar: Beauty lie in the eyes of beholder. Internet is full of charlie wilson book review, old social science theory you see what you want to see. Please see the Russians writers and soldiers comments on this hero and book. BTW some times it is more then some one else comments you got to use your own imagination too.

  14. Roshan says:
    December 25th, 2007 1:59 am

    Its overall a good movie which will help the U.S. spectators and western countries to connect current situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan with Soviet-Afghan war.
    The direction was very weak while showing Pakistan (Presidency, U.S embassy Islamabad, Pak-Afghan border). Animations of war were not impressive too.
    I wish, I would have read the book before seeing movie.

  15. December 25th, 2007 3:50 pm

    Yes, the film features the combined efforts of Hollywood legends assembled to put a high-gloss sheen on Wilson

  16. FS says:
    December 26th, 2007 7:56 am

    After watching the movie, I remembered the day my father (and rest of the family) bought AK47. I don’t remember why my family bought those guns and whether they needed it… I just hated the idea than and blame most of the violence in Pakistan to those guns brought into pakistan from Afghanistan after the war and selling them for food.

  17. Rashid says:
    December 26th, 2007 10:49 am

    Adil i agree with your analysis and comparison of book and the movie Charlie Wilson’s War.
    Another technical mistake in movie: The uniform of Brig and Col are not accurate, e.g there are no red strips on the collars.
    It would have been better if couple of active duty/in-service officers of Pak army were cast.
    Even turban style of presidential waiters is not accurate.
    The scene could have been shot in now women university housed in Zia’s presidential residence in Rawalpindi.

  18. Tina says:
    December 29th, 2007 3:11 pm

    Yayyyyyy, Nail ‘em Up

    Finally a realist who gets it right. Nobody who says his whole life was *chasing pussy and killing communists* is a great fellow worth making heroic movies about. This guy was a pompous jerk who made a lot of very very big mistakes. I read that they did try to cover some of that in the movie but the *Texas socialite* didn’t like how it made her look so all of that was left on the cutting room floor.

    Rambo, yeah right. Bimbo and James Bond wannabe, maybe.

  19. Feisal Khan says:
    December 29th, 2007 11:07 pm

    Just curious. Does the book make any mention of the fact that the Communist government was the best government that Afghanistan has ever had–from the perspective of the (ok, hypothetical) Average Afghan man and woman?

    Ignoring the many thousands (estimates range from 20-40K killed) of people rounded up and killed as enemies of the revolution by the Khalkis and Parchamis, the Communist government initiated a land-to-the-tiller program and mandated education for both boys and girls, among other unIslamic acts. Why do I say ignore the killings? Because the Afghan Mujahideen government and the Taliban did as bad if not worse without any positive act to offset it.

    From Adil Najam’s review, I also get the impression the book and the movie make a deliberate attempt to ignore the fact that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now allied to Mullah Omar’s Taliban, was the biggest recipient of US military and financial assistance.

    This was at the insistence of the ISI whose much-vaunted Afghan Desk (all Pathans of course) hated the Persian speaking Tajiks of Ahmad Shah Massoud. Incidentally, both Massoud and Hekmatyar were Pakistani clients since 1973 when Gen. Babar (then IGFC) set up the Afghan resistance cell out of his office.

    Any mention of the massive corruption in the ISI? The systematic ‘leakage’ of arms and funds out of the pipeline? Of the amount of money Zia and Akhtar Abdur Rehman made out of the jihad?

    Any mention of Zbigniew Brezinski’s admission that the US was actually financing operations against the Communist government BEFORE the Soviet invasion in order to suck the Soviets into their Vietnam? Of his comment that it was worth having a few Muslims ‘riled up’ in order to destroy the Soviet Union?

    I picked up the book at an airport bookstore and leafed through it for a few minutes before deciding that it was too simplistic a portrayal of the war. Far too much American hoo-yah BS and a singular inability to understand the complexity of the issue. As an undergrad in the 1980s, I was also proud of the Afghan Mujahideen and Pakistan’s support of them. How stupid I was and look at what “Charlie Wilson’s War” has done to our country–with our willing complicity.

  20. Owais Mughal says:
    May 3rd, 2008 9:57 am

    Finally saw the movie yesterday. Interesting I must say. Some parts are more like a documentary than a movie. More was left to be desired on ‘action’ side.

  21. Wayne says:
    June 7th, 2008 4:28 pm

    If people can leave religion out of it and just follow the facts, as they may have been dramatized[after all it is entertainment], then we might see the point of view of the film. We could put an Islamic or a Christian-American slant on it. But, would that tell us what happened? It might satisfy someone’s yearning to empirically ‘right’. It’s not about that, it’s about a man who found a conscience and an opportunity for a bigger purpose and acted on it to the best of his knowledge. And, to the best of his knowledge he could not stop the consequences, this the “zen master” story in the movie. Those consquences being that he could not convince his colleagues to follow-up with rebuilding Afghanistan. Thus the Taliban, al-quaida and 9/11. This is something the real Charlie Wilson has commented on. Maybe that’s the reason for the final scene in the film. It does seem post 9/11. Parting comments: evil [immorality] is in the eye [mind] of the beholder & some people are too heavenly minded to do any Earthly good.

  22. Tina says:
    June 7th, 2008 6:09 pm

    Feisal Khan–that was exactly how I felt, too.

  23. Ellen Sherman says:
    January 10th, 2009 9:49 am

    I was so glad to read the thoughts of people who have been, or are from Pakastan about this film. The result for me, an American, was that it made me feel warmly towards not only Pakastan, but Afganistan as well. History should never be subjective, but that is what we are exposed to most often. Open dialogues on the internet are so important for that reason.
    I liked the film and was simpathic to the characters.
    I only wish that when a group of people, where ever and whom ever they are, get upset enough to act violently, that there be a way to talk it all through instead. There is more love and understanding in we humans than we are given credit for.
    Ellen Sherman

  24. January 25th, 2009 11:34 pm

    Just saw the movie for the first time and then found your blog while researching it. I’m going to follow your advice and buy the book. Thanks.

  25. Asif Bashir says:
    January 14th, 2010 6:45 pm

    So did you like the movie?

  26. Jamshed says:
    March 7th, 2010 10:26 pm

    When I first watched the movie,I liked it.It entertains as a comedy.But it is also flippant.The subject matter it is dealing with is far too serious,the consequences of that war all too real.

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