Saturday, May 10, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War (Universal, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

If you can forget what it’s about — i.e., if you can accept at face value the depiction by director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin (creator of the hit TV show The West Wing) of the U.S. support for the mujahedin in Afghanistan as a great and wonderful victory that helped end the Cold War and destroy the Soviet Union, and forget that the resulting collapse of Afghanistan as a governable state led to the rise of the Taliban, its granting asylum to al-Qaeda and ultimately the 9/11 attacks — "Charlie Wilson's War" is actually quite an enjoyable movie. It’s basically the old Bogart character trope — jaded, cynical character acquires a cause greater than himself and regains his original idealism — against a rather Wag the Dog-ish backdrop of entrenched political and social corruption.

The Bogart figure is real-life Texas Congressmember Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), whose main interest in life are drinking, women, drugs (when we first see him he’s in a hot tub in Las Vegas with three naked women — two of them strippers — and a man who’s trying to worm $29,.000 out of him as an investment in a Washington-based TV series which will star his girlfriend de jour) and getting re-elected so he can enjoy the perks of Congress insofar as they allow him to obtain booze, women and drugs. (He has an entire office staff of young, nubile females — he calls them “Charlie’s Angels,” this being the early 1980’s when that show was still a major part of the Zeitgeist — and when he’s asked why, his explanation is, “You can teach them to type, but you can’t teach them to grow tits.”)

Things change for Wilson when he’s asked to intervene in doubling the budget for a covert war against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan in early 1980 from $5 million to $10 million, and as part of a plan to convince him that the Afghan resistance needs still more money he’s invited to a soirée by Right-wing loony Texas heiress Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) — who seduces him as part of the bargain — and also gets involved with renegade CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman),who’s eager for a fight anywhere in the world where we can stick it to the Russians without getting sucked into another Viet Nam-style morass.

Wilson is convinced that he’s found the cause of his life when he visits the camps for Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan and hears tales of the Soviets bombing villages from the air and leaving behind land mines disguised as toys so kids who reach for them get their hands blown off, as well as local women being raped and the populations systematically starved (the same atrocities committed by virtually every occupying power throughout history, including the various factions in the Afghan civil war against each other after the Soviet withdrawal gave them the space to do so with impunity), and he’s found his cause. Eventually the budget balloons to $500 million — with the government of Saudi Arabia having secretly agreed to match the U.S. contribution dollar for dollar, this means an actual allocation of $1 billion — the Afghans win their war, the Soviets are driven out and Wilson receives a secret award from the clandestine intelligence services of America hailing his indispensable role in ending the Cold War with a U.S. “victory.”

There are a few sporadic attempts to acknowledge the real-world complexity of this situation and how the “victory” of America’s “allies” in Afghanistan set up the rise of the Taliban and the 9/11 attacks — at several points in the film Avrakotos tells a parable supposedly narrated by a Zen master (“There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse... and everybody in the village says, ‘How wonderful,. the boy got a horse.’ And the Zen master says, ‘We’ll see.’ Two years later the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everybody in the village says, ‘How terrible.’ And the Zen master says, ‘We’ll see.’ Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight... except the boy can’t ’cause his legs messed up. and everyone in the village says, ‘How wonderful.’” Charlie Wilson: “And the Zen master says, ‘We’ll see’”) and at the end Wilson, having won $500 million for the mujahedin (the correct term for someone who participates in a jihad, by the way, though it had to be retired after 9/11 because the propagandists did such a good job during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan creating positive associations with the word “mujahedin” that when 9/11 occurred, they had to invent the fictitious word “jihadi” to describe people who participates in jihad against us or our allies), is rebuffed when he asks for $1 million to build schools in Afghanistan and says, “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... and then we fucked up the endgame.”

But these feints at complexity can’t really change the moral complexion of this film, which is a morality tale in which the Afghan mujahedin and everyone who helps them are good, while the Soviets and everyone who helps them (including CIA people less gung-ho than Avrakotos is) are bad. The film is well directed and mostly well cast, though I was disappointed in Phillip Seymour Hoffman — his role really cried out for Robin Williams, who could have put a comic spin on Avrakotos’ intensity and drive whereas Hoffman just seems overbearing, the kind of person you’d want to strangle in about seven minutes after you first met.

Still, Charlie Wilson’s War is a nice “watch” (analogous to what they mean when they describe a book as a “read”), touching on recent historical events without drenching us in them and offering us a good time and a lot of delightful scenes — notably the one in which Wilson assures his supporters that it’s precisely because he’s in the middle of a sex-and-drugs scandal that nobody will notice anything g he’s doing about Afghanistan; the one in which Avrakotos responds to his immediate superior dressing him down for breaking the window in his office by breaking it again (just before he does it, he turns to the workman who’s just repaired the window and calmly tells him, “I’m about to make some more work for you”); the one in which they get the Saudi defense minister on board with the plot (to get the arms to the Afghan resistance Wilson has to deal with both the Saudis and the Israelis — the gimmick is that the arms have to be captured Russian because the whole operation would be blown if U.S. munitions turned up in the battlefields of Afghanistan) by supplying him an American stripper to do a lap dance with him; and the meeting Wilson has with General Zia al-Haq, then dictator of Pahistan, who upbraids Wilson about his “character problems” and leads Wilson to tell his chief of staff after the meeting, “You know you’ve reached rock bottom when you’re told you have character flaws by a man who hanged his predecessor in a military coup.”

Like I said, if you don’t look too closely at what it’s about Charlie Wilson’s War is, if not a great movie, certainly a fun and entertaining one; if you do, you’ll be thinking thoughts like my partner Charles’ comment when the Congressmember and his unlikely allies are discussing that many of the arms are going to have to be shipped via mule because the Afghans don’t have roads. Charles said, “You’re fighting the people who wanted to build them roads!”