Tom Hanks and Charlie Wilson Interview

January 2008

Before there was a war on terror, there was Charlie Wilson's War. A conversation with Tom Hanks and the Congressman he plays.

A Little-Known Chapter of History

Patriotism comes in many shapes. There's the straight-up sentiment of Tom Hanks, one of the most admired celebrities in America, the star of Saving Private Ryan and a dozen other blockbuster films. And there's the more unconventional patriotism of retired Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson. A flamboyant man with an appetite for strong whiskey and pretty women, Wilson represented the people of the Lone Star State's 2nd District, who elected him to the legislature and then to Congress for over 35 years.

But Charlie Wilson was much more than a D.C. party animal. For most of the 1980s, he used his position as a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to obtain billions of dollars in U.S. military aid for the insurgent groups fighting to topple the Soviet puppet government in Afghanistan. At the height of the Cold War, when a direct military confrontation with Moscow would have been risky, Wilson found a backdoor way to challenge the Communist regime. While Ronald Reagan ran the White House, this iconoclastic Democrat formed a bipartisan coalition to support the ragtag Afghan resistance fighters. In 1988 the Soviets finally admitted defeat and began withdrawing from Kabul—a major blow that helped lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Hanks and Wilson have teamed up to make Charlie Wilson's War, a film (based on a book by the late 60 Minutes producer George Crile) about Wilson's obsession with defeating tyranny. Hanks plays the charismatic politician who summons his charm to funnel money to Afghanistan when most of Congress is preoccupied with the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua. Ironically, Wilson's fiercest challengers are naysayers in the CIA, who resent interference from a renegade Congressman.

Though Wilson wasn't a formal consultant on the film, he routinely weighed in on matters of accuracy. Retired in 1996, the former lawmaker, now 74, left his hard-living ways behind long ago, married in 1999, and last September underwent a heart transplant. Wilson, four weeks postsurgery, and Hanks spoke with Reader's Digest about this little-known chapter of history.

War, Film, and Charlie Wilson

Before we discuss the war or the film, let's talk about Charlie Wilson.
Tom Hanks :
Let me tell you, Charlie has told more people than me that if you could drink or smoke it, he probably did at some point. And he came up for reelection every two years—in a dry county in Texas, right?
Charlie Wilson : Absolutely. [I was] an acknowledged rogue.
Tom Hanks : Charlie told me about one race in which his opponent was decrying his lack of morals and family values and faith. Charlie said, "I let my opponent say what he wants, but while I've been in this Congressional seat, we've done more for veterans, for seniors, for health care. We got the highway built. I'm an open book—read me as you want, but make sure you see what the results are."

You managed to secure billions of dollars for a secret war in a country most Americans couldn't locate on a map. Has anything like that happened before or since?
Charlie Wilson :
Not that I know of. We weren't supposed to do any of this. On the other hand, we had a case in which there were no gray areas. Everything was black-and-white. I don't think there are any people in Congress, whether they're liberal or conservative, who are not patriots. We were able to make this work for years without partisanship and without a single damaging leak to the press. That's what's unheard-of. I did love to have a good time, and I did break all the rules. I got caught sometimes too. But I hated Communism because I hated tyranny of any kind. Still do.

What's interesting about the movie is that the heroes aren't all good and the villains aren't all bad.
Charlie Wilson :
Let's take the Soviets, the Communists, out of it. On our side, the villains truly weren't all bad. Our opponents were CIA people who had been doing things their way for 40 years and couldn't imagine doing them any other way. They were heroic guys in their own right, but they would say things like "We don't want to irritate the Soviet Union." I would hear that and not be able to breathe for a couple of minutes.

The Secret War Today

Tom, "Charlie Wilson's War" is more complicated than some of your other films. I'm thinking of "Saving Private Ryan," in which we know whom to cheer for every moment.
Tom Hanks :
This is a tale that deals with something that is probably impossible to capture on film: how politics works. Politics and storytelling in movies are antithetical processes, because in movies you always have to see progress, and in politics you don't always get progress. My desire was to make as complex a movie as possible: Here's what happened, here are the people who did it, and here's how they did it. I think we've done okay. My hope is that [viewers] spend time talking about this movie when it's over—what it meant, what the repercussions were, what was good or bad about it.

In the film, we see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes in Washington. Do Americans hear enough news with those kinds of details?
Tom Hanks :
I don't want to get on a soapbox, but by and large our popular media isn't that interested in telling the whole story, because they can't wrap it up succinctly. There's not always a good guy and a bad guy. If you try to actually explain the particulars of a complicated issue, you're going to get laughed at and told, "Why don't you just give $20 to National Public Radio? Maybe they'll do a story about that on All Things Considered."

Charlie, do you think you could have gotten away with this today? Given the media now—with things like the Drudge Report and MSNBC and bloggers—what would have happened to your secret war?
Charlie Wilson :
We couldn't have done it.
Tom Hanks : I don't think so either. I'm one of these Americans who are trying to figure out if the constant blaring of the media, from the left and the right, has taken us to a point where there's no legitimate discussion. And as a result, there's no chance of balance and respectful compromise. How do you arrive at a point where you get any sort of overall bigger picture?

Speaking of the big picture, there have been reports recently that Al Qaeda is using our own leftover weapons against us, and that fighters we trained 20 years ago are attacking Americans and our allies. True or false?
Charlie Wilson :
No way. There's not a bullet that's still on the shelf over there. They fired up everything they got from us a hundred times over. And they don't have anything but AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. The Afghans never gave Al Qaeda Stinger missiles, for instance, thank the Lord.


Living Up to the Promise

There are more than 300,000 Afghans living in the United States now. What kind of response will the movie get from them?
Tom Hanks :
When we were shooting in Santa Clarita, it seemed like every Afghan in California came to watch. We had a guy who said, "I was 12 and we fought the tanks. I was given a weapon and we shot." Now here they are, opening stores and family businesses, trying to live up to the promise of the promised land in America. When Charlie spoke one day on the set, he said, "It might have been American money, but it was Afghan blood." People in the crowd were weeping.

Could Afghanistan have become more stable after the Soviets withdrew?
Charlie Wilson :
I think so. But once the Russians marched out, we came home. We should have stayed and built schools, hospitals, roads and an electrical system. All the things that America does so well, we could have done for a song. The people who were the most infamous triumphed because we didn't do anything at all.

And now things aren't going so well there. The Afghan government is under attack from insurgents, and the Taliban is making a comeback.
Charlie Wilson :
I praised the Bush Administration for rebuilding the infrastructure and dealing with the farmers. But when the Iraq war started, be it bad or good—the real war was the war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan—it pulled the best CIA people and Special Forces out. The cost of reconstructing Afghanistan is nothing compared with the cost of this war.

Charlie, you've said that Winston Churchill is your hero. Why?
Charlie Wilson :
There's a story there. I used to drink a lot. One time I had barely gotten out of a DUI. They made me go to a class, at 7:30 on Saturday mornings, about not drinking whiskey. The teacher was a radical former drunk, and there's nothing more insufferable. At one point he said something, and I picked my head up. "Oh, I was just saying, Can you imagine what contributions Winston Churchill could have made had he not been an alcoholic?"
I said, "I guess it's all in the way you look at it. But he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He wrote his first serious book in his 20s. He wrote A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. And in his spare time, he saved Western civilization. So if it's all right with you, Professor, I'll take him drunk."
Tom Hanks : Hearing you describe all that Churchill accomplished, maybe I need to start drinking. God bless you, Charlie Wilson. I wish you were still in Congress.

A Reader Wants to Know...

Maggie Yost, from Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA, asks: I saw your MySpace page. Tell me more about your electric car.
Tom Hanks :
I have two electric cars. One has 36,000 miles—not a one from gasoline. That's with a car that has only 60 miles per charge. My new electric car gets well over 100 miles per charge, with power windows, air-conditioning, a great sound system and even a jack for my iPod. It's a Scion xB, converted to all-electric by the brainiacs at AC Propulsion, and it can go as fast as any gas car, to the point of the threat of speeding tickets.

Source : Reader’s Digest