So you finally saw "Charlie Wilson's War" and want to learn more about Good Time Charlie, the rowdy Congressman from Texas credited with bringing down the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Naturally, you turn to the History Channel, who never met a movie tie-in opportunity it didn't like. That's where you find "The True Story of Charlie Wilson," a 90-minute documentary covering the Representative's career, both in Washington and as a crusader for the Afghan rebels.
The good news is that "The True Story" is up to the channel's standards of quality research and sharp production - even the reenactments are good, despite being, well, reenactments. The bad news is that since you've seen "Charlie Wilson's War," you already know about eighty percent of the facts, figures, and anecdotes on display here. The producers even haul in Aaron Sorkin, the movie's screenwriter, to tell part of the story.
But what a story. Wilson caught the politics bug back in the 1940s, when, as a teenager in rural Texas, he single-handedly organized the electoral defeat of the neighbor who killed his dog. Working his way from the state legislature to Capitol Hill, Wilson became an unlikely Congressman, a bachelor with a taste for women and booze; when the party monster talked his way onto the House ethics committee, it was with tongue almost in cheek. A chance viewing of a Dan Rather report from Afghanistan and some run-ins with Houston socialite Joanne Herring led Wilson to support the Mujahideen, fighting for covert operation funding that would supply the rebels with enough firepower to take down the Red Army. Would the Soviet Union have collapsed without Charlie Wilson?
It's a familiar yarn to those who've seen the movie, but "True Story" has one secret weapon: Wilson himself. While Hanks is a natural charmer who did a terrific job in the role, nobody can match Wilson himself, and listening to the Congressman spin these tales more than makes up for the redundancy of the facts.
Unfortunately, the documentary's producers don't simply let Wilson fill up the running time with his anecdotes. In order to keep up a steady pace, Wilson's remembrances are intercut with other talking head interviews, meaning we get four or five voices telling us a single story. That's fine if it's someone unexpected, like the former Soviet officer recounting his side of the story, but for the most part, it's Wilson's friends, colleagues, and biographers. And while Aaron Sorkin is a heck of an interview subject with a knack for storytelling, wouldn't you rather just hear Wilson?
There's just enough extra information here to keep the program from being a mere repeat of the movie. If you remember the belly dancer scene from the film (and of course you do), you'll be glad to know the complete details behind her travels abroad are included. Wilson's struggles to get reelected in a crucial year for Afghan funding, a moment left out of the movie, adds some nice drama when covered here. And the documentary doesn't shy away from a critical drunk driving hit-and-run incident that might have ruined Wilson's political career (although unlike the thorough coverage of Wilson's drug charges, the program fails to properly explain how the Congressman escaped felony charges here).
Video & Audio
As with all documentaries of this sort, "True Story" is a visual grab bag, relying on both muddy archive news footage and crisp, new interview clips. The newly produced material looks just fine, making older, rustier footage passable. (There are a few brief instances of jittery interlacing during some camera pans, but that's likely an issue with the source material.) Unfortunately, the program is offered in a 1.78:1 flat letterbox with no anamorphic enhancement.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is simple and clear, with no problems with the interview dialogue or archival footage. No subtitles are offered.
As a standalone introduction to Wilson and his amazing life story, "The True Story of Charlie Wilson" is definitely fascinating; as a supplement to "Charlie Wilson's War," it's a bit redundant yet fills in enough of the gaps to remain worthy of a peek. However, with a disc as unimpressive as this, you might as well just Rent It if you can't catch it as a rerun on cable.