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The Insider: A Fond Postscript For Crile

Jan 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

The movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” began with a 1988 “60 Minutes” piece about a good-time senator from Texas who had quietly helped fund and arm freedom fighters trying to drive the invading Russian military out of Afghanistan. Award-winning “60 Minutes” producer George Crile broadened the story into a book that was published in 2004 and spent months on the best-seller list.
Directed by Mike Nichols, written by Aaron Sorkin, starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman and produced by Mr. Hanks and Gary Goetzman, the movie debuted in December to good reviews and awards buzz.
The Insider spoke last week with Mr. Crile’s widow, Susan Lyne—who said she is remaining president and CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, despite rumors suggesting otherwise—and asked how she feels as the spotlight once again shines on the legacy of Mr. Crile, who died last May of pancreatic cancer.
For more than two decades, they were one of New York’s more striking and likable power couples. She had created, launched and edited Premiere magazine and was managing editor of the Village Voice before joining ABC, where she would rise to president of ABC Entertainment.
Mr. Crile had cut a wide journalistic swath through the capitals of international intrigue around the world as a CBS News producer who worked with Harry Reasoner, Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley and Dan Rather.
She talked about Mr. Crile as an intrepid producer, a brilliant father and a most supportive and sexy husband who literally used to bring the world home to his family in New York.
The Insider: Is all the buzz and conversation about “Charlie Wilson’s War” bittersweet?
Susan Lyne: I am so thrilled. I can’t tell you. I was always saying to George: “Remember, books don’t get made into movies. They may get optioned, but don’t get your hopes up. And even when they do get made, they’re not very good. And even when they’re good, they don’t get an audience.”
Imagine him doing the “I told you so” at this point. I wish George had been here to see it all. I also miss his voice in all of the conversation about the movie, because he was so articulate about what had happened and why.
But I love the movie. I think they did a remarkable job. It was such a tough book to adapt. It’s a big, complex story with a lot of players, and there are so many stories in it that are so broad and big.
If the wrong person was directing in it or the wrong people were cast in it, those characters could easily have come off as buffoons, and I think Mike and Gary and Tom and Aaron really created such a perfect balance between comedy and drama.
The Insider: So you think George would be pleased with it?
Ms. Lyne: I do. I’ve said to Mike at various points that he’s lucky he didn’t have George in the mix because he would have been wanting to hold on to this scene or that scene.
He knew this book inside out, obviously, and he’s a journalist, he’s not a filmmaker. While he was alive and development was under way, I kept saying to him: “You’ve got to let go and let them make this film. It’s a very different thing than writing a book.”
The Insider: He didn’t live to see anything on film, but how far into the development process was he able to be active and have conversations?
Ms. Lyne: Really very briefly. He got to read the first draft of the script. Mike was hired while he was still up and around. The last week before George died, Charlie came to see him right after he had had a two- or three-hour lunch with Mike. Really, he came to see George to say, ”This guy is the perfect person for this project. I promise you I think he is going to do a great job.“ And George just was hanging on every word. Charlie walked him through the lunch blow by blow. He was happy.
The Insider: All this hubbub now is a reminder to those who knew George of how passionate he was about work and how he was larger than life in a way that can’t happen so often in the TV news business these days.
Ms. Lyne: George became a journalist in part because he wanted to be able to play on a big stage. I think he wanted to see the world and be part of the big events that were unfolding. I was always somewhat bewildered by his choice to dive into whatever crisis or crumbling empire or political sinkhole was out there, but he loved it.
He loved being able to go deep into a place and a set of events and just get to know the players well enough that they just opened up to him completely. And then to be able to turn all of bits of information he would come up with into a narrative.
He was truly a story teller. If you look at any of the pieces he did for “60 Minutes” or, clearly, the book, there were a lot of ways to write that book, but George chose to write it as a narrative with big characters and an arc.
When he went to “60 Minutes II,” [executive producer] Jeff Fager allowed him to do a lot of the reporting himself. So a lot of the original reporting including a lot of the film was shot by George, and he was the interviewers for those pieces. So it was an interesting mix.
George not so secretly would have loved to be able to be both correspondent and producer. He would love to be editor, as well, and certainly cameraman. When he started going to Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was always with a little Hi-8 camera.
He shot a lot himself. It allowed him to spend three weeks, or five weeks, or six weeks getting people to lead him to another interview subject, which you can never do from the telephone in New York. You can’t set all of those things up in advance. You’ve got to be there. You’ve got to gain people’s trust. That’s what he was great at.
The Insider: He was gone a lot, and not always in nice, safe, civilized areas. How much did you worry about him?
Ms. Lyne: Not very much. Part of it was that if I’d started to worry about him, it would have been a full-time job and overwhelmed my life. But I also always believed that he was smart about where he went and with whom.
Everywhere he went, he made good friends. So people who, even if they had very different political views, they were people who respected George’s willingness to let them say their piece and never felt that he was going to manipulate what they said for his own end. So they took care of him.
I always felt that he would have somebody by his side who was a local, who knew where George could go and where he couldn’t go, and who would vouch for him. The story Daniel Pearl was doing when he was kidnapped, trying to get to an interview … a month or two later George got that interview. He was up in the northern provinces and tribal areas in Pakistan. If George had not been with someone who knew the area and knew the subject, he could have gotten into serious trouble, but he would never go someplace like that by himself.
The Insider: Even so, I can’t imagine only being able to imagine where he was, who he was with, and that he was OK. I think it would be very hard not to worry.
Ms. Lyne: I really promise you I didn’t. When you marry somebody who has that kind of life, you sign on for a certain amount of uncertainty. Part of the compact was that he was going to continue to do it, and I was going to cheer.
The Insider: How long were you married, and how did you meet? And what about your kids?
Ms. Lyne: I met him at a dinner party at Chris Isham’s house. The person who actually connected us was his sister, Susie Crile, whom I had known since the late ‘70s. Susie and I had boyfriends when I was living in Berkeley who were good friends. She introduced me to George in 1980.
We got married in ’84. We had two kids and I’ve got two stepdaughters. My stepdaughters got married last year and are happily ensconced in New York. George’s and my oldest daughter graduated from college last May and is in Beirut.
She was working for an English-language paper and very recently jumped to a primarily digital media outlet. She’s just loving it. Our youngest daughter is a freshman in college.
The Insider: So you are simply doomed to have someone in your life you aren’t supposed to worry about?
Ms. Lyne: I worry every day about my daughter, but she’s got a good head on her shoulders, and it’s amazing how clear cell phones are to Beirut, and e-mail is a fantastic thing, so the last thing I want to do is to say, “You can’t do this thing that you have a passion for.” I love the fact that that’s the choice she made.
The Insider: Has everyone seen ‘Charlie Wilson’s War”?
Ms. Lyne: Oh, yes, yes, yes. All four girls were with me at the New York premiere. It was great. They were just thrilled.
The Insider: If the film had included George’s role, who would have or should have played him? I saw a picture of him on “CBS Sunday Morning” recently. I had forgotten that he was so good-looking.
Ms. Lyne: He really was. I used to love to play these casting games. I don’t think it would have been as good a movie if he were a character in it. He very carefully kept himself out of the book.
Except in the introduction. But he was great-looking. First time I brought him out to the beach, I guess this was 1980 or 1981, to meet my parents, we were lying in the sand and George got up to go run into the ocean, she turned to me and said: “OK, Susan. This time you really got it right.”
The Insider: How did you get into discussion about the compact?
Ms. Lyne: We met when I was 30 and he was 35. He had a life already, and I had a life already. He was unbelievably supportive of me and my work, too. Remember, I commuted out to California for a time. I have always worked.
And nobody was prouder or more supportive of me in every way. He was a brilliant father as well as being a great reporter and a great husband. We know that if this was going to work, it was going to work because we respected what each of us had chosen to do with our lives.
George brought the world home to us all the time, too. Not just in stories. He would bring people to the house constantly. There were many times where I would walk in at night from work and there was a table full of people from a country I couldn‘t pronounce who were already happily engaged in what was going to be a long night of eating and drinking.
The Insider: You learned how to get by on very little sleep.
Ms. Lyne: Yeah. And I loved it. One of the things I desperately miss about not having George here is being able to say to him: Tell me what’s going on in Pakistan right now. How do I think about this?
What should we be doing in Iraq? He just had such vast knowledge of world politics. If you look at the areas he focused on, it was always the place where there was a lot of instability at that moment, a lot of change happening.
It was Central America in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It was Afghanistan in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was Russia when the Soviet Union was collapsing. He was very much a part of or tuned to world politics and major shifts that were talking place.
The Insider: What is your reaction to people saying, this produced the people who became so militant and are our enemies now?
Ms. Lyne: I think that what George saw was that there really were two stories. There was Charlie Wilson’s war and then there was a sequel to that, for want of a better word, … through a series of missteps and misguided policies and lost opportunities.
The Insider: And unintended consequences?
Ms. Lyne: He would say that unintended consequences are always in play. What he was working on when he got sick was really a sequel to “Charlie Wilson’s War.” What fascinated him about it was that it was not a sequel in the traditional sense. It was not a continuation of a story along somewhat predictable lines.
The ground shifted and there was a new prism that you had to look at all these characters through. A lot of the freedom fighters we supported shifted sides and became our enemies. The Russians who were our enemy in that war became our ally in the war against radical Islam.
But he would say it was, on some level, of our own making, that there really were missteps and lost opportunities that led to this. And he would be much more articulate describing it to you than I ever will be. The movie hints at some of the mistakes we made. Abandoning Afghanistan so quickly was just wrong. And also the fact that all this American support for the Mujahedeen never surfaced at the time.
There were an awful lot of people who believed it was Allah who had given them the strength to overcome the Russian invaders, and if the world had known that we had been partners on some level in this, maybe there would have been a somewhat different outcome.

22 Comments

  1. This is a message for Susan….
    George and I discussed him doing a book on El Salvador’s 55 Special Forces Advisors… one in advisor in particular….2 weeks before he passed, I talked to him … and he said he had some pressing family matters….not letting me know he was going on…. Can you help me close that project’s door ? anyway, I miss him…Major Andy Messing

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