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Film / Charlie Wilson's War

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Joanne Herring: Charlie, I want you to defeat the Soviet Union, and end the Cold War.
Charlie Wilson: OK!

Charlie Wilson's War is a 2007 biographical drama film (adapted from the non-fiction book by George Crile) recounting the true story of U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson who partnered with CIA operative Gust Avrakotos to launch Operation Cyclone, a program to organize and support the Afghan mujahideen in their resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It was directed by Mike Nichols, written by Aaron Sorkin, and starred Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.

The plot follows Charlie Wilson, who has a very gregarious social life of women and partying, including having his congressional office staffed with young, attractive women. A friend and romantic interest, Houston socialite Joanne Herring, encourages Charlie to do more to help the Afghans, and persuades Charlie to visit the Pakistani leadership. The Pakistanis complain about the inadequate support of the U.S. to oppose the Soviets, and they insist that Charlie visit a major Pakistan-based Afghan refugee camp. Charlie returns home to lead an effort to substantially increase funding to the mujahideen. The story then follows the rapid evolution of Wilson's suggestions to multi-million dollar funded projects by the United States. Teaming up with gruff but knowledgeable CIA agent Gust, Charlie starts seeing results as the Afghans fight back against the Soviets. But Charlie starts finding out there are unintended consequences happening, and that the secret war effort is slipping down a slope he didn't want...

Tropes associated with this work:

  • Accidental Misnaming: Done sans the accidental part. Charlie Wilson prefers to call Gust Avrakotos Gus Avrakotos. Gust doesn't really give a shit.
  • An Aesop: In-universe, Gust tells a story about the unforeseeable consequences of current events.
    Gust Avrakotos: There's a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse... and everybody in the village says, "How wonderful. The boy got a horse" And the Zen master says, "We'll see." Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, "How terrible." And the Zen master says, "We'll see." Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight... except the boy can't cause his legs all messed up. and everybody in the village says, "How wonderful."
    Charlie Wilson: Now the Zen master says, "We'll see".
  • Anti-Air: A major problem is finding a mule-portable weapon that can shoot down the well-armoured Hind helicopter gunships.
  • Arms Dealer: Israeli arms merchant Zvi Rafiah.
  • Asshole Victim: It's not enough that the soldiers manning the Hind gunships are shooting at and killing unarmed civilians in an Afghanistan village at random with the helicopters' cannon but they also are calmly describing a relationship over the radio where one of the pilots is upset that a "serious relationship" to his girlfriend means having only her as his relationship and then promptly being killed by an Afghani MANPADS in the middle of his conversation.
  • Badass Boast: Gust Avrakotos has a long one, in two main parts, to a superior who suddenly revokes his status as the new Helsinki station chief.
    Gust Avrakotos: I've been with the company for twenty-four years. I was posted in Greece for fifteen. I've advised and armed the Hellenic Army. I've neutralized champions of communism, I've spent the past three years learning Finnish, Which would come in handy here in Virginia, and I'm never ever sick at sea. So I wanna know why I'm not gonna be your Helsinki station chief.... Or did Turner not think it was a good idea to have spies who could speak the same language as the people they're fuckin spying on?
    Slately Well I'm sorry, but you can hardly blame the director for questioning the loyalty to America of people that are just barely Americans in the first place.
    Gust Avrakotos: ... My loyalty!? For twenty four years, people have been trying to kill me. People who know how. Now is that because my dad was a Greek soda pop maker, or because I'm an American spy?
  • Badass Bookworm: Former Green Beret turned covert warfare strategist Michael Vickers, described by Gust as "the nerdy looking kid in the white shirt."
  • Bittersweet Ending: Charlie Wilson succeeds in getting the American government to arm Afghan rebels and drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. But when it comes time to rebuild the war-torn nation he can't raise one cent, allowing the extremist Taliban to take over Afghanistan. And that all led to the events surrounding The War on Terror.
    Charlie Wilson: These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... and then we fucked up the end game.
  • Boring, but Practical: Vickers warns Wilson there's no 'magic bullet' weapon to throwing the Soviets out; the key is to equip the muj with a mix of weapons that will prevent the Soviet pilots from evolving tactics to overcome them. As it turns out the Stinger is a lot more effective than anyone realises.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer:
    • Charlie is a hard partying, hard drinking congressman who does coke and hires his aides based on how hot they are, he also has a contact for pretty much any situation imaginable and is insanely skilled at navigating the complicated web of politics, all while being consistently re-elected.
    • Gust's diplomatic skills are lacking, if they even exist in the first place. He is indeed coarse and sardonic to a fault, but is an extremely competent and knowledgeable intelligence officer.
  • By "No", I Mean "Yes": As only befitting an Aaron Sorkin production.
    Bonnie Bach: This is an ultra-right-wing group of anti-Communist fanatics.
    Charlie Wilson: They're not ultra right-wing.
    Bonnie: What are they?
    Charlie: Well, they're... ultra right-wing.
  • Covert Group with Mundane Front: Gust claims to work for Department of Agriculture's Fruit and Plant Division, specializing in apple imports, though it's mostly played as a joke because Joanne is well-aware he's with the CIA. Also likely a reference to the United Fruit Co., the corporation that created the concept of the banana republic, which had close ties to the CIA and the President of the United States.
  • Deadpan Snarker: It's easier to count scenes where Gust doesn't do this. Charlie and Joanne have their share as well.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Everyone is so obsessed with Charlie's hedonistic lifestyle and the allegations that he may have done cocaine at a party, no one is taking any notice of him dramatically increasing funds to a covert war in Afghanistan. Gust is probably the only one to notice, and, more importantly, use it for their cause, making various backroom deals easier to handle.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: Gust may be ill-tempered and impatient, but he has no problem waiting in Charlie's office if it means staring at his secretaries.
    Receptionist: He should be here any moment.
    Gust: Don't worry about me, I'm fine.
  • Enemy Mine: Charlie is able to get Liberals and Conservatives, Arabs and Israelis, and Christian and Muslim Fundamentalists to join forces with the common aim of throwing the Soviets out of Afghanistan, mostly because all of them despise the Soviets more than they do even the people who are their obvious political enemies. This gets brutally deconstructed in the coda of the film, after the Soviets are withdrawing from Afghanistan. For everyone involved, this was an alliance of geopolitical convenience. With the Soviets gone, there's nothing left to keep this coalition of nations together to fix the future. Charlie is heartbroken (and terrified) when he realizes that there is a big difference spending hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat the Soviets, and spending a million to build a single school.
    President Zia: Pakistan and Israel would have to appear to be enemies in the public eye.
    Charlie Wilson: Yeah, I don't think that's gonna be a tough sell.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Charlie tells his aide about how he got into politics when a nasty local politician, Charles Hazard, poisoned young Charlie's dog who had gotten into Hazard's flower beds. Coming after his tour of the refugee camps, it establishes Charlie as an unrepentant Guile Hero who is about to take up the Afghan cause in a big way.
      Charlie Wilson: ...and then I remembered Mr. Hazard was an elected official, he was the head of the town council. His re-election every two years was a foregone conclusion. So come election day I drove over to the black section of town... now these people hadn’t voted in any of these elections. I filled up my car with black voters and drove them to the polling place and waited and drove 'em on home, but before they got out of the car I said "I don't mean to influence you, but I think you should know that Mr Charles Hazard intentionally killed my dog." About 400 ballots were cast in that election. I drove 96 of them to the polls. Hazard lost by 16 votes. And that's the day I fell in love with America.
    • Gust's first scene, telling Cravely, his boss, to go fuck himself. Gust is immediately presented as a crass, passionate and very sarcastic spy who takes no shit from nobody, knows his tradecraft very well and is very proud of his own competence.
  • Fanservice: Emily Blunt shows up. In her lingerie.
  • Foreshadowing: An airliner can be heard flying overhead as Gust tries to warn Wilson about "the crazies rolling into Kandahar".
  • Framing Device: We start and end some years after the main events of the film.
  • Hired for Their Looks: Charlie Wilson purposefully surrounds himself with Sexy Secretaries, and hires them based on looks. Despite this, they happen to be highly competent in their jobs. His rule as paraphrased by one of said secretaries:
    "You can teach 'em to type, but you can't teach 'em to grow tits."
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Depending on your politics. The real Charlie Wilson was not quite as liberal as the one in the film. (He didn't have to be — the Soviets were also commies in Real Life, so it balances out.) May count as Author Appeal, as the guy who wrote the screenplay is the guy who gave us The American President and The West Wing.
  • Hollywood Tactics: Lampshaded and subverted when Vickers is brought onto the program. He points out that the Afghan rebels don't just need Anti-Air; they also need assault rifles of the same type their enemies use, as well as anti-tank weapons, grenade launchers, mines, sniper rifles, bicycle bombs, and secure radio communications. Not to mention the ability to resupply all of the above. The novel also mentions items like boots and ration packs so they can conduct campaigns during the winter, as well as medical supplies, long range mortars and minesweeping gear.
  • Hookers and Blow: Or rather, strippers and blow, put exactly that way by a girl in a hot-tub with Charlie at the beginning. When Charlie's female friend complains that she's not a stripper (she's a Playboy model), the original girl proudly says that she is. And so's her friend.
  • How We Got Here: The movie opens with Charlie Wilson being handed a civilian award for his efforts with the Afghan war. The movie then explains why Charlie has a pained, bittersweet expression on his face...
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Played with regarding Bonnie. It's not that Charlie is incompetent but he's still enjoys parties, drinking and drugs and it gets him into trouble. Bonnie is much more straight-laced and professional and seems excellent at her job.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Gust, when describing one of his CIA colleagues in negative terms.
    Gust: Harold Hold is a massive tool, Congressman. I mean he's a cake-eater, he's a clown, he's a bad station chief, and I don't mean to cast aspersions on the guy, but he's gonna get us all killed.
  • Immigrant Patriotism: Gust tells it like it is.
    Gust: But let me ask you. The three thousand agents Turner fired, was that because they lacked diplomatic skills as well?
    Cravely: You're referring to Admiral Stansfield Turner?
    Gust: Yeah, the three thousand agents. Each and every goddamn one of them first or second-generation Americans. Is that because they lacked the proper diplomatic skills? Or did Turner not think it was a good idea to have spies who could speak the same language as the people they're fuckin' spying on?
    Cravely: Well, I'm sorry, but you can hardly blame the Director for questioning the loyalty to America of people that are just barely Americans in the first place.
    Gust: Yeah, well I'd like to take a moment to review the several ways in which you're a douchebag.
    (Gust grabs a nearby tool and smashes out the new glass front wall of Cravely's office. Which was barely put to replace the old one, also smashed by Gust)
    Gust: My loyalty!? For twenty four years people have been trying to kill me! People who know how. Now do you think that's because my dad was a Greek soda pop maker? Or do you think that's because I'm an American spy? Go fuck yourself, you fucking child!
  • Innocent Blue Eyes: Bonnie... especially apparent when she's looking at Charlie as he tells her of "the day I fell in love with America". Helps that she's played by Amy Adams.
  • Inspired by…: Aside the very basic premise and certain minor details, most of the plot is made-up and characters are very broad strokes of real people.
  • Interservice Rivalry: When Charlie is first introduced to former Green Beret (Army special forces) turned CIA weapons expert Badass Bookworm Michael Vickers, all that Charlie can see is that Vickers looks like a nerdy kid and thinks that Gust is screwing with him. After being told Vickers' qualifications Charlie grudgingly apologizes and says that as a former Naval officer he should have known better than to judge from appearances. Vickers snarks that he would have been really surprised if an officer from the Navy had shown that much judgement.note  Gust, semi-diplomatically, tells the pair of them to knock that shit off and concentrate on the real issues. (And as soon as they start talking business, the two immediately put the rivalry aside and work seamlessly as a team.)
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Gust. He's blunt, rude and lacking in social skills. But he's competent, knows his stuff... and tries to warn Charlie at various points of the arming efforts that there could be painful consequences down the road.
  • Just Plane Wrong: Several NATO aircraft are shown in the montage of Stinger casualties.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: The pilot of the first downed Hind is talking about his would-be girlfriend when he gets hit.
  • Let Me Get This Straight...: One of the greatest examples in film history
    Zvi: Now, just to sum this up in a nutshell; You want me to steer Israel towards a partnership with Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan?
    Charlie: And Saudi Arabia.
    Charlie: Look...
    Zvi: Charlie...
    Charlie: I know.
    Zvi: Pakistan and Afghanistan don't recognize our right to exist!
    Charlie: Calm down.
    Zvi: We just got done fighting a war with Egypt, and every person who has ever tried to kill me and my family has been trained in Saudi Arabia!
  • Lifesaving Misfortune: Discussed in Gus' Zen Master story, which is about a boy who gets a horse, loses the use of his legs in a riding accident, but is then excluded from the draft when a war breaks out and all the young men in the village except him are killed. Charlie does grasp the moral in not assuming that it might not turn out to be a case of misfortune after all. As the Zen Master says: "We'll see."
  • Lost in Translation: Used in-universe, when Gust tries to explain the animosity between Tajiks and Pashtuns by telling a derogatory Pashtu joke. Nobody laughs.
    Gust Avrokatos: "Well, they say when a Tajik wants to make love to a woman, his first choice is always a Pashtun man. [beat] It's funnier in the original Pashtu."
  • Majored in Western Hypocrisy: One of the advisors of the President of Pakistan remarks that he went to Oxford and is able to recognize Charlie's empty words because of it.
  • Male Gaze: Various close-ups of the behinds of Charlie's secretaries.
  • Manchild: Invoked.
    Zvi: I love you, Charlie. But you are a grown man, who still hasn't learned to look both ways before he crosses the fucking street!
  • Mr. Vice Guy: Charlie Wilson. A total womanizer, but a man who definitely fights for American interests.
  • Mixed Metaphor:
    Gust: (to Cravely) Also, water goes over a dam and under a bridge, you poncy schoolboy.
  • Mood Whiplash: The movie bounces between the horrors of war, the insanity of politics, and the comedy of Charlie's lifestyle.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Jane Liddle spends most of her on screen time in her underwear.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Subverted. It's not Charlie's fault that Afghanistan slides into Taliban control: he's seen trying to get his fellow congressmen to send more rebuilding aid and failing. It leads to Charlie's unhappy grimace at the award ceremony that the movie both opens and closes on. In Real Life, Charlie Wilson remained worried that his actions unintentionally contributed to The War on Terror, and said that every time an airliner went down, he would be afraid that one of the Stingers they gave the Afghans would be responsible.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Several of these in the CIA. Although the major suspect for it early on actually refuses to obstruct them later on the grounds that "Whatever he's doing... it's working."
  • Odd Friendship:
    • The relationship between hard-partier Charlie Wilson and devout-religious Joanne Herring. It's noted there was some romance in the past, but it's still odd to see such polar opposites being so friendly to each other throughout the film.
    • Also applies to the friendship that starts up between Charlie - a partying, naive politician - and Gust - a hard-nosed serious foreign expert who's naive about nothing.
  • Oddly Small Organization: Played for laughs:
    Charlie: You mean to tell me that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is to have the Afghans keep walking into machine gun fire 'til the Russians run out of bullets?
    Gust: That's Harold Holt's strategy, that's not U.S. strategy.
    Charlie: What is U.S. strategy?
    Gust: Well, strictly speaking, we don't have one. But we're workin' hard on that.
    Charlie: Who's "we"?
    Gust: Me and three other guys.
  • Omniglot: Gust is implied to be one, befitting his profession. We know he speaks, at the very least, Finnish and Pashtun.
  • Only Sane Man: Gust has a sailor mouth, but he understands the world a lot better than most people, and knows that behind the celebration of the Soviet withdrawal, new problems could very well emerge, and urges Charlie to resolve them.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Tom Hanks has a Texan accent... some of the time. Possibly deliberate, as he puts it on the most when around the public and other Texans, otherwise not so much.
  • Qurac: Played for drama in an exchange near the end;
    Charlie: We've spent billions on weapons. Let's spend a million more and rebuild a school.
    Bob: Charlie, nobody gives a shit about a school in Pakistan.
    Charlie:...Afghanistan. It's Afghanistan.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Cravely is a company-man more strict than competent. He is not completely unreasonable, but Gust has no patience for the obtuseness and tells the boss, in no uncertain terms, to go fuck himself. Twice.
  • Really Gets Around: Charlie Wilson. His girlfriend (or at least, sometime girlfriend) Jane also expresses willingness to sleep with other men.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Charlie doesn't try to hide his hedonistic lifestyle from his Bible Belt constituents.
    • He's representing Texas: they pray hard and party hard in that state.
    • He's also representing a district that's already so wealthy that Charlie has little to do in Congress... except collecting favors over votes that he can cash in to get the secret war in Afghanistan started...
  • Sarcasm-Blind: In their first meeting, Gust arrives with a bottle of Scotch as a present for Charlie doubling the funding for their covert efforts in Afghanistan. Charlie offers his thanks and Gust replies "It was nothing. ...Doubling the budget was nothing. Ten million dollars for covert ops against the Russian army is meaningless. What are you, an infant?"
    • Plus, Gust has the bottle wired for sound.
  • Sexy Secretary: Charlie was notorious for this in real life. His aides were referred to as "Charlie's Angels", a play on the television show of the same name. One of his secretaries explains it beautifully to a visitor: "Well... Congressman Wilson, he has an expression. He says, 'You can teach 'em to type, but you can't teach 'em to grow tits.'" Which was something the real Charlie Wilson said (to a reporter) who questioned him about his preference for hiring beautiful women as his aides. Aside that, the secretaries are very competent at their jobs. They're not just Eye Candy.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Signature Style: The screenplay has Aaron Sorkin's fingerprints all over it, as he would put it.
  • Sleazy Politician: Charlie is among the sleaziest ever portrayed, yet is a noble and dedicated public servant all the same.
    Charlie: You know you've reached rock bottom when you're told you have character flaws by a man who hanged his predecessor in a military coup.
  • Smart People Play Chess: We're introduced to covert warfare strategist Mike Vickers playing chess in a park against four opponents simultaneously - he warns one opponent against trading queens without even looking at the guy or at the board.
    Charlie: That's a useful skill...if Afghanistan's ever invaded by Boris Spassky.
  • Smooch of Victory: Charlie kisses his secretary in front of his congressional colleagues when she brings him the news of the first Hinds being shot down.
  • Spit Take: Joanne is throwing a big event with President Zia of Pakistan as the guest of honor. Zia is controversal for overthrowing his predecessor Bhutto, and Charlie has warned Joanne not to even mention the subject for fear of alienating potential allies. Naturally, the first words out of Joanne's mouth are about Bhutto.
    Joanne: "Before we go any further I would like you to know this. President Zia did not kill Bhutto." (Charlie drops his glass).
  • Stubborn Mule: Gust reacts with incredulity when he's told that the mules have to be trained to carry stuff through the Afghan mountains:
    Gust: Aren't they born with that instinct? I mean, isn't that something they want to do naturally?
  • Sultry Belly Dancer: A variant apparently influenced by East Texas stripper routines.
    Egyptian Deputy Minister of Defense: That's not any belly dance I'm familiar with...
  • Tantrum Throwing: Gust breaking his CIA boss' window after he's denied the Helsinki assignment. It has been just replaced - after his previous outburst.
  • Waxing Lyrical: When Gust is listing the reasons why he should be Helsinki station chief, he ends by saying, "I'm never ever sick at sea." Given who wrote the script, this also counts as Author Appeal.
  • Work Hard, Play Hard: Charlie Wilson's motto.
  • World of Snark: Aaron Sorkin's staple. Almost every conversation is riddled with sarcasm and witticisms.

Alternative Title(s): Charlie Wilsons War