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Documentary review: The True Story of Charlie Wilson (The History Channel)

Come listen to this story about a -- deep breath -- "womanizing, boozing, Cowboy congressman from Texas" who deployed a glamorous Houston socialite and an accomplished belly dancer to seduce support for rag-tag Afghan rebels fighting with archaic "Davy Crockett rifles" to rid their country of the mighty invading Soviet Army.

Sounds like it would make a helluva Hollywood movie, and by now you probably know they've made one. Charlie Wilson's War, opening Friday, Dec. 21st, shouldn't be seen without at some point seeing The True Story of Charlie Wilson on The History Channel (Saturday, Dec. 22nd from 7 to 9 p.m. central).

They go together like Jack and Coke, each weaving a tale that just seems way too preposterous to be the stone cold sober truth. That's what makes it such a good story.

History Channel's two-hour documentary has the advantage of first-hand, current-day interviews with the real Wilson and bosomy buddy Joanne Herring, respectively played in the Mike Nichols-directed film by Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

The genuine article, now 74, doesn't look anything like Hanks. But he sure sounds a lot like under-shirted cartoon Texan Hank Hill, voiced by Mike Judge in Fox's King of the Hill.

"I had the world's longest mid-life crisis," Wilson tells the camera. "My wife says it's still going on."

To hear him talk, his wife might as well be Peg Hill. Other than voice patterns, though, the only thing Charlie really shares with Hank is the oft-cartoonish nature of his adventures.

Wilson got into politics as a teenager after a neighbor killed his beloved dog, Teddy, by putting glass shards in his food. It seems that Teddy had been trespassing next door. The crum-bum avenger turned out to be an elected official whom young Charlie then avidly campaigned against. He took his "dog killer" message into the black community, which then helped to narrowly defeat the incumbent's bid for re-election.

This hooked Charlie on politics, and eventually led to his election to Congress in 1972 as Texas' Second District representative. Already known as "Good Time Charlie," he hired a staff of young beauties who were dubbed "Charlie's Angels."

Wilson's true calling came while he sat in a Caesar's Palace hot tub surrounded by an assortment of well-appointed young women. Somehow he found time to watch Dan Rather's famed "Gunga Dan" report from Afghanistan, where he had gone undercover with hopelessly outgunned rebels fighting to drive "Red Army" forces from their homeland.

Quickly hooked on their cause, Wilson eventually teamed up with the Red-hating Herring, who otherwise specialized in throwing really good parties guaranteed to make friends and influence people. They soon had another ally in maverick CIA operative Gust Avrakotos, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the big-screen movie. All three became obsessed with funneling arms to the Afghan rebels by any means necessary.

This included a trip to Egypt with belly dancer Carol Shannon, also interviewed in the History Channel documentary. Her seductive performance for the Egyptian defense minister supposedly persuaded him to make a covert weapons deal.

It keeps getting better -- and/or odder. Wilson is caught up in a cocaine scandal stemming from his eventful night at Caesar's Palace. Did he or didn't he inhale? Charges eventually were dropped for lack of evidence, and the current-day Wilson isn't about to elaborate any further.

"Nobody knows but me, and I'm not sayin'," he tells History Channel.

Wilson later got drunk and was involved in a hit-and-run accident in which luckily no one was hurt. But he covered it up rather than risk missing a plane to Paris, where powerful House subcommittee chairman Doc Long (Ned Beatty in the movie) was to be wined, dined and persuaded to secretly free up big money for the Mujahadeen freedom fighters.

One snag leads to another. And at two hours, the History Channel's version is a bit too redundant. It's also sometimes hard to separate reenactments from actual vintage footage. An opening disclaimer says the documentary "contains scenes that have been dramatized with special attention given to historical accuracy."

Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay for Charlie Wilson's War, also is a major interviewee in History Channel's companion piece. He considers Wilson a hero of his times and rejects any notion that he's at least indirectly responsible for the 9-11 terrorist attacks. A "bunch of twisted (expletives)" are the culprits, says Sorkin.

Wilson himself says the Afghan freedom fighters will "never get the kind of credit they deserve." He also agrees that "we left a vacuum (in Afghanistan), and the vacuum was filled by the Taliban and al qaeda."

This is a fascinating story of seized opportunities, devilish derring-do, comical mishaps and the virtual collapse of Communism and the Cold War within a year after the Soviet Army slunk out of Afghanistan in February, 1989.

"Charlie did it," several eyewitnesses say at documentary's end.

That's probably too simple a verdict, but he sure had a big hand in one of history's biggest overthrows. At least a pat on the back is due him. Or maybe an ovation.

Grade: B+