The cocaine congressman

Jan 2, 2008
Charles Laurence

A new film sanitises larger-than-life congressman Charlie Wilson, reports Charles Laurence

Retired US Congressman Charlie Wilson left the hospital where he had been recovering from a heart transplant just in time to attend the premiere of the movie made in his name, Charlie Wilson’s War.

He was a bit critical. Mike Nichols' blockbuster, with the all-star cast of Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman, had gone soft, cleaned up for the audience rating. Where, for instance, was the cocaine in the very first scene, featuring the Democrat of the Texas Bible Belt in the Las Vegas hot tub?

"They were kind to me," Charlie complains. "I had the idea when they started out that the movie was going to be rougher, a little more sex, a little more bad language."

That Wilson had to have a new heart at 74, and would be happy to have been portrayed rather more truthfully, says it all about the 6ft 4in Hollywood-handsome, old-style pol with the cowboy boots and booming voice. Not to mention the string of criminal investigations into 'donations' that gave him a millionaire's lifestyle on $70,000 a year, all of them brushed off.

He is also the man who broke all the rules to fund and facilitate America's covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, arming the Mujahideen who cracked the Russian Empire and ushered in the end of the Cold War. He even managed to smuggle his girlfriend Annelise 'Sweetums' Ilschenko, a former Miss USA-World, onto a secret trip to the guerrilla camps, outraging the Pentagon.

Julia Roberts plays the Houston socialite who tickled Wilson's fancy to prompt his campaign: Hoffman is the renegade CIA officer who, for instance, defied the brass to smuggle missiles via Egypt to enable the Afghans to destroy lethal helicopter gunships and so turn the tide of the struggle.

You couldn't make this stuff up. Nor this, from the George Crile book of the same name which inspired the movie: "It was an enormous Jacuzzi," Wilson recalled. "I was in a robe at first because, after all, I was a congressman. And then everyone disappeared except for two beautiful, long-legged showgirls with high heels... they walked right into the water with their high heels on. It was total happiness. And both of them had ten long, red fingernails with an endless supply of beautiful white powder. It was... better than anything you've ever seen in the movies."

Quite. But there is a dark side to Charlie Wilson's War (left). He and his CIA buddies ignored the suffering left by their triumph and failed to anticipate the 'blow-back' that created the Taliban and the terrorist training camps of al-Qaeda.

So Wilson is both a hero of the Cold War and a villain of the War on Terror, a double-barreled role that exactly matches his larger-than-life character. Would we all be better off with the whiskey-swilling, skirt-chasing, couldn't give-a-damn Good Time Charlie than the teetotal, self-righteous fellow currently in charge? At least Charlie won one war.
Charlie Wilson's War opens in the UK on January 11

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