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The real Charlie Wilson: 'War' got it right

  • Story Highlights
  • Former congressman Charlie Wilson's story became "Charlie Wilson's War"
  • Wilson is portrayed by Tom Hanks in the film
  • While in Congress, Wilson helped guide funding to support Afghan rebels
  • Wilson is pleased at the way the movie turned out
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By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- "Good Time Charlie's" recovering from the blues.

Wilson

Charlie Wilson, at the Los Angeles movie premiere with wife Barbara, loves the film about him.

Seven months ago, Charlie Wilson -- the former Texas congressman whose story became the book and film "Charlie Wilson's War" -- had heart transplant surgery. Recovery was going well until he went to the Los Angeles premiere of the film -- with his doctor, no less. (His wife went, too, of course.)

"I really wasn't able to enjoy all the hoopla ... over the film because I had come to the premiere against my doctor's wishes, and I paid a terrible price for that afterwards," he says in a phone interview from New York, alluding to what he calls "a setback." But he's feeling much better now, he adds, and he's finally getting a chance to promote the film in which he's the central character. ("Charlie Wilson's War" came out on DVD Tuesday.)

Indeed, Charlie Wilson loves life in general. The U.S. Naval Academy grad and Navy veteran was elected to Congress in 1972, a Democrat bucking the Nixon landslide, and quickly became known for his high-living escapades, which earned him the nickname "Good Time Charlie," and shrewd accumulation of political chits.

His savvy came in handy in the early '80s, when Wilson, a staunch anti-Communist, decided to help Afghan rebels in their war against the invading Soviet Union. Over several years, working behind the scenes, his efforts to raise funding through his defense subcommittee, to establish a bond with a CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film) and to negotiate support from Middle Eastern countries helped the Afghans take the upper hand -- and eventually forced the Soviets out of the country. Video Watch Wilson in a bonus scene from the DVD »

Asked what led to the Soviet departure, Pakistani leader Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq was blunt: "Charlie did it," he told "60 Minutes."

CNN talked to Wilson about seeing himself on film, the political climate and how he'll be remembered. The following is an edited version of that interview.

Q: Are you happy with the way the film came out?

CHARLIE WILSON: I really was happy with the film, yes. I didn't expect them to be able to hew as closely to the book as they did. It only had an hour and 37 minutes, and they really got a lot in there. ...

Hanks did a great job. And Philip Seymour Hoffman did a stupendous job.

Q: What was your reaction when you saw Hanks portraying you, and Julia Roberts portraying Joanne Herring, and actors playing other people you know?

WILSON: It just put me in a fog of wonder and disbelief.

Q: Was it a case where you thought: This person wouldn't talk like that?

WILSON: No, no, no, they were too close to the truth. Philip Seymour Hoffman, for instance, was Gust Avrakotos. He deserved that Oscar. I wish he'd have gotten it.

Q: Were you an adviser on the film?

WILSON: No, no. I was there a lot. My wife and I were on the set a lot. But we were just there at the pleasure of Mike Nichols, and we did a lot of begging -- or I did a lot of begging -- on the script and that sort of thing. But I had no authority whatsoever.

Q: Some of the criticism of the film is that it didn't do enough to highlight the blowback that was to come in this decade [when Afghanistan was taken over by the Taliban and became a base for al Qaeda]. Is that a fair criticism, or did the film do what it was supposed to do?

WILSON: I think it did what it was supposed to do. If it had a blowback, now it's blowing the other way, if we can just get our focus back on Afghanistan.

I don't think there was a serious blowback. I think there was the point that [author] George Crile made in the [book's] epilogue, that the Muslims saw that they took down one superpower and then the radical ones thought they could take down another one. But they're wrong.

Q: There's also a lot of talk about transparency now. (Wilson chuckles.) This operation was done largely covertly -- and it had a lot of success because of that.

WILSON: That's right, you can't do everything transparently. This was opaque and it had to be opaque, and had it not been, it wouldn't have succeeded. But to be opaque, it had to have bipartisan support. It had to have enthusiastic bipartisan support. But bipartisan support that didn't go to the press, and try to take credit.

Q: Is that still possible?

WILSON: I don't think so. I was talking to [talk show host and former congressman] Joe Scarborough this morning and we were discussing that, and we were both pessimistic.

Q: Is that because of the partisanship, or because everyone has a blog now, and even the slightest nugget gets out and gets blown all the Internet?

WILSON: I think you hit the two. One is the bitterness and the extreme partisanship, and the other is the blogs and the cable shows.

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Q: A lot of times the movie becomes the final word on something -- It's been said that some schoolchildren's idea of the Kennedy assassination comes from Oliver Stone. Would you mind if, when people think of Charlie Wilson, they think of the film "Charlie Wilson's War"? Or would you hope that they have the sense to read the book, to look into your legislative history or earlier?

WILSON: I'm not a stickler. I'll take the movie. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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