Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 15, 2008)
Just in time to coincide with the DVD release of 2007ís Charlie Wilsonís War, we get a History Channel documentary called The True Story of Charlie Wilson. As you can infer from the title, this program purports to tell us the reality behind the flickís take on Wilson and his exploits.
If you saw the movie, youíll know that back in the 1980s, Texas Congressman Wilson worked behind the scenes to support the Afghan Mujahideen in their battle against the Soviets. Story examines these activities via the usual mix of archival materials and interviews. We hear from Wilson, War screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, former Soviet Commander General Valentin Varennikov, former Soviet Lt. Colonel Alexander Pikunov, CIA agents Frank Anderson, Jack Devine and ďBulldogĒ, CIA Pakistan Station Chief Milt Bearden, Pakistani diplomat Dr. Humayun Khan, anti-Communist activist Joanne Herring, Courage Is Our Weapon producer Robin King, Wilsonís friend Carol Shannon, Pakistani Brigadier Mohammed Yusuf, Pakistani General Hamid Gul, Pakistani Colonel Sultan Amir Imam, and Afghan rebels Sayed Ishaq Gailani, Azizullah Din Muhammad, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, and Ahmad Wali Massoud.
ďTrueĒ looks at the 1979 Soviet assault on Afghanistan and covert US involvement there. We also learn about Wilsonís life and career and what prompted his support for the Afghan cause. From there it digs into how he took charge of the USís assistance to the Afghans as well as related personal and professional topics.
Usually when I watch a documentary that tells the true story behind a feature film, I expect to take note of all the ways the fictionalized tale changes the facts. In this case, I leave with a pretty positive impression of how much Charlie Wilsonís War does right. As you watch Story, youíll see a lot of material covered in the flick, and it comes as a bit of a surprise to see how few liberties that effort took.
Not that this means War was completely accurate Ė or that Story wonít provide lots of details new to those who solely saw the film. While War probably works better as entertainment, Story unquestionably provides a fuller examination of the various subjects related to Wilsonís efforts. It gives us a decent glimpse of background issues largely ignored in the movie and digs into other topics with greater depth.
Wilsonís personal life and non-Afghan-related career get the most expansion here. For example, in War, a sexy belly dancer appears as a footnote during a diplomatic mission. As indicated here, that belly dancer was Wilsonís girlfriend Carol Shannon, and she accompanied Wilson during a lot of his treks. This doesnít mean that War dropped the ball; Shannonís involvement had little to do with Wilsonís work, as far as I can tell, so there was no reason for the flick to spend time on that topic. Nonetheless, itís interesting to learn more about a character who doesnít even merit a name in the feature film and find out that there was a lot more to her presence than the movie indicates.
I also like the documentaryís info about Wilsonís political ups and downs. In War, we hear virtually nothing about his re-election campaigns, but here we find out how close he came to defeat at one critical juncture in the Afghan war. The movie leaves the impression that Wilson coasted through each election every two years, but the documentary lets us see that the reality became more complicated.
Another fascinating tale relates to Wilsonís alcohol problems. The evening before a vital trip to Europe and Afghanistan to earn the backing of leading Congressman ďDocĒ Long, an inebriated Wilson rear-ended a car and fled the scene. This nearly scotched his departure the next morning, but he managed to skate. I expect War avoided this event because it doesnít cast Wilson in a positive light. The film likes to portray him as a lovable rascal, but a drunk-driving/hit and run scenario may give the viewer a more negative view of the Congressman. I donít really fault the filmmakers for its omission, but it wouldíve made for a dramatic sequence, and itís very interesting to find here.
Most folks who come into Story after a viewing of War wonít find lots of revelatory information. However, the documentary acts as a good expansion on the facts presented in the flick. We get a more accurate depiction of history and learn quite a lot along the way.