History Channel // 2007 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 1st, 2008
The true story that inspired that blockbuster Hollywood film.
Produced to coincide with the theatrical release of the film Charlie Wilson's War, this new documentary from The History Channel boasts that it offers the true story of Charlie Wilson. Using interviews with friends, historians, and Wilson himself, The True Story of Charlie Wilson attempts to demonstrate how and why former U.S. Senator Charlie Wilson enabled Afghan freedom fighters to defeat the forces of the Soviet Union during the 1980s. So, just how engaging and revealing is this documentary? Does it offer many facts that the film doesn't? Just how close is Charlie Wilson's War to The True Story of Charlie Wilson?
A boozing, womanizing Senator from the state of Texas, Charlie Wilson was well-known to fellow senators and to his constituents as a good-natured scoundrel. Wilson himself is surprisingly frank about his past, and freely admits to enjoying nothing better than hanging out in a hot tub with some strippers. Wilson was also someone who was willing to use his political power to grant favors or win points with the right people, and was generally the spitting image of a stereotypical corrupt congressman. However, Wilson also managed to use his power for good. One day, while participating in his favorite activity (sitting in a hot tub with strippers), Wilson caught part of a 60 Minutes program featuring Dan Rather in Afghanistan. It sparked his interest, and Wilson quickly became dedicated to finding a way to free the Afghans from oppressive Soviets.
The documentary also introduces us to other key figures that helped Wilson in the fight. One of these was Joanne Herring (the character played by Julia Roberts in the movie), a wealthy Texas woman who used her money and social influence to fight Communism. Even more important is Gust Avrakotos, an unpopular but intelligent CIA official who aided Wilson immensely in his plans. We hear plenty from Herring herself, but Avrakotos is only discussed by others. Interestingly, and somewhat annoyingly, the person we hear from the most in this documentary is screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the film Charlie Wilson's War. Now, I don't mind that Sorkin was included; he's obviously done his research on Charlie Wilson. However, I wanted to hear more from those who were actually close to Wilson during the 1980s.
This is an interesting story, but honestly, I think that watching Charlie Wilson's War is probably the better way to have it told to you. There are surprisingly few facts here that don't also turn up in the film, and this documentary seems even more determined toward worshipping Charlie Wilson than the film. It's as much a filmed tribute as it is a documentary. Additionally, there are a handful of dramatic scenes here that were staged to try and give viewers an idea of how particular situations would have looked. These are over-the-top and quite obnoxious, especially the early scenes that seem like gratuitous attempts to show women in bikinis as often as possible.
This is a fascinating story of personal political intervention, but unfortunately this documentary seems a little too eager to focus on sordid stories from Wilson's past. While I admit that there are certainly some eyebrow-raising tales (such as the story about a belly dancer swinging a sword around a foreign dignitary's crotch area), there isn't quite enough information about what Wilson's involvement in the battle against Communism. Every time something political pops up, there's a quick story about somebody Charlie slept with just around the corner.
Finally, and perhaps most disappointingly, there is very little discussion of the long-term consequences of arming Afghan freedom fighters. While it did play a key part in the fall of the Soviet Union, it also enabled and triggered the activities of the Taliban. There are a lot of complex issues involved here, and this documentary tends to gloss over and oversimplify all of these in favor of paying homage to our sinful-yet-lovable hero. This documentary might have served as a modestly interesting bonus feature on a special edition DVD of Charlie Wilson's War, but I can't recommend picking this up on its own. If you're interested, catch it on television sometime. You won't need to see it more than once.
The DVD itself looks about average for a television documentary, with simple Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound serving this talking heads piece just fine. No extras of any kind are included on the DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated