Interview: Charlie Wilson
Wed, 23 Apr 2008 08:28:04
Charlie Wilson deserves some R&R. Right now the former congressman is relaxing at The Waldorf Hotel in New York. It's a long way from his native Texas, but he's got no problem with that. Smiling, he exclaims, "The hotel's old, very dignified and first class—kind of like you'd expect." He recently had an Academy Award-nominated film made about his heroic, political exploits, Charlie Wilson's War, and now he's on the eve of its DVD release. Not only did he inspire the Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts drama, he was a presence on set. At 74-years-old, Wilson shows no signs of stopping, a true American in every sense of the word.
As a congressman in the early '80s, Wilson recognized the tyranny that Afghanistan faced at the hands of the Soviets, and he chose to do something about it. Through a communication web, he hooked up with a rogue C.I.A. agent and abetted the effort to arm Afghans against the Soviets. His efforts would prove monumental to their success. He did this all the way from Texas in a congressional seat. Who said you can't make a difference if you want to? Wilson gave ARTISTdirect some insight into the meaning of civic duty, his role in the film, how Tom Hanks became him and much more.
The film exudes sincerity and realism. How much input did you have in the final product?
Well it does definitely feel sincere, but I didn't have a lot input in the movie itself. The team listened to me and gave me a lot of time. [Director] Mike Nichols is very open, and he did accept suggestions. So I feel like I had some input. However, it was primarily a creation of Mike Nichols, the producers, Aaron Sorkin and of course, Tom Hanks.
Do you feel like the film was an accurate portrayal of everything that you lived through at the time?
I really do—startlingly accurate. When I watch the film, it really is amazing to relive those moments. You just can't believe it. It's a very surreal experience. It's something that happens to very few people. It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Very few people get movies made about them, and damn near none get movies made about them, while they're still alive.
Your patriotism is really striking, and it’s the film's most inspiring theme. Was that what sparked your actions in the first place?
That’s a big part of my life. I'm an unabashed, unapologetic patriot. It was what triggered my actions. Also, I had a pathological, despicable feeling about the Soviet Union. The idea of being able to help a poor, little country of shepherds take down the Red Army was pretty exciting.
You came from an underdog position as well. Your fight in office mirrored theirs in he desert.
That's right. It really did, but the glory really belongs to the shepherds, tribesmen and million Afghans who died. Afghanistan's a very unhealthy place to invade, no matter what your advantages are.
That area has always been so tumultuous. We probably haven't ever been completely prepared for what's over there.
Probably not, but the Russians should've read a little history, because Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and the British Empire, twice, got their fingers seriously burned in Afghanistan, and they all had to ignominiously withdraw—just like the Red Army did.
It's amazing to see that victory too.
It really is. Now that brings tears to my eyes—to see the movie and see that. Just to see the sacrifice that went into it and the glory they achieved is completely inspiring. It's just too bad that we couldn't have done a better job on the end game.
As a native of the South, would you say patriotism is fostered more down there?
I'd say so. The South has got a military tradition and a patriotic tradition. I suppose you just can't overcome those things. There aren't many flags burned in Texas, I'll tell you that [laughs].
The film's behind-the-scenes party footage seemed more like Wild on E! than a posh, political gathering. Was there an element of rock star excess to the after parties?
Well, now that you mention it, I suppose it does mirror that. The partying is definitely a big part of the whole thing. There were the crazy, Jacuzzi nights in Vegas for sure [laughs].
That sounds like more fun than typical politics.
I think we could say that's definitely a truism [laughs].
Were you ever afraid that everything could collapse with your position, while you were helping the cause?
Everyday I was worried about that, but I knew what I was doing when I took the risks. I took them on purpose. They were calculated, and it all worked out. To get something like this done, you have to be passionate and willing to take risks. I knew it was the right thing to do too. There was no choice. I just couldn't simply let people that brave sell their lives so cheaply. That's what they were doing until we got there. Then the Russians started selling their lives cheaply.
Who were some of your political heroes?
People in congress can detect when people are operating from a high moral ground or when they're phonies. Winston Churchill is number one definitely. Then Margaret Thatcher and Franklin Roosevelt. I haven't thought about this for a long time, I’ll admit [laughs].
Did you ever envision Tom Hanks playing you?
No I hadn't. We were very excited, and very hopeful Hanks would play the role, but I was nervous to mention his name, really. We'd sit around and talk about people who could play the role. Hanks was everybody's real hope, and we were really excited, of course. He just did a wonderful job too, honestly.
“To get something like this done, you have to be passionate and willing to take risks. I knew it was the right thing to do too. There was no choice. I just couldn't simply let people that brave sell their lives so cheaply.”
Did Tom spend a lot of time with you to prepare for the role?
It was just a matter of informal visiting. We spent some time in his offices just talking about other things. They were very generous about letting me on the set all I wanted to. My wife and I were on the set a lot, and we definitely spent a lot of time with Tom. Everything with the film feels really natural, and it came together organically. I might say it's going to feel even more natural on the DVD.
What would you like people to take away from the film?
I'd like people to understand that tyranny can be defeated. I'd also like people to understand what congress can accomplish when it's not all eaten up with bi-partisanship and an insatiable desire to run to the press with damaging leaks. We didn't have any of that.