Friday, November 19, 2010
CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (2007): The Enemy of Our Enemy
The greatest surprise for me in Charlie Wilson’s War (released in 2007) was that the movie was not as poorly filmed as I anticipated. The film actually serves a purpose in that even the most docile of moviegoers could at least get an inkling from watching it as to why Afghanistan is now in such a mess. Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are cast as the movie’ leads to draw in a larger audience. The dialogue is witty to an unrealistic degree. The point of view does not veer too far to either the left or right to turn any of the audience members off. And as evidenced by the ending that one could see coming all the way from Kabul, the movie is in most respects a conventional Hollywood commodity.
Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), from Lufkin Texas, was the Congressman from the Second Congressional District of Texas from 1973 until 1997, and also was a member of the Defense Appropriations Committee. He was a reputed womanizer and drug user. If one was to believe Charlie Wilson’s War, with the assistance of Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), the honorary consul to Pakistan and Morocco and also the sixth wealthiest woman in Texas, and Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a CIA agent who specialized in Middle East operations, Charlie Wilson almost single-handedly was responsible for covertly supplying the Mujahideen with the arms necessary to defeat the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan. Joanne, a hard drinking sophisticate and born again Christian, apparently was motivated to assist Charlie by her hatred of Communism. Gust was frustrated at fighting the Soviets on a shoestring budget while dealing with United States delegates and ambassadors who didn’t mind seeing Afghans slaughtered - so long as it meant a drain on Soviet resources. Joanne through her connections with President Zia of Pakistan (the same President Zia who hung his predecessor Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – father of Benazir Bhutto - in a military coup), made it possible for Charlie and Doc Long (Ned Beatty), a key player on the House Appropriations Committee in approving foreign aid, to visit the Afghan camps and witness in person the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union. Gust advised Charlie on what kind of arms should be shipped to the Afghans, and he also helped broker the deal through Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia to disguise the fact of America’s involvement. What began as a million dollar amount of assistance to the Afghans became by the time the war ended in 1989 about one billion dollars. Yet after the Soviets signed the agreement with the United States that they would leave the nation so long as the United States agreed to stop financing the Mujahideen, America basically lost all interest in the nation of Afghanistan. Despite the fact that Charlie was so able to raise funds to arm the Afghans, when Charlie attempted to get a million dollars more funding to help the Afghans pay for schools the politicians in Washington turned a deaf ear. Thus, as Gust pointed out, the Afghans, who had no idea that they were assisted throughout the entire Soviet invasion by the United States, now felt as if America did not care about feeding or educating their children. Gust seems to be omnipresent in all things in that he can even envision the chaos that will ensue if the United States was not involved in the rebuilding of the infrastructure in Afghanistan.
Michael Nicols directed Charlie Wilson’s Wars. More importantly, Aaron Sorkin created the screenplay – the same Aaron Sorkin who was responsible for the writing of the West Wing television series. The screenplay for Charlie Wilson’s War, with the behind the scenes intrigue, reads very much like a West Wing script. Sorkin tries to cover all of the many facets that go into the involvement of the three main characters in the covert operation, but he also conveniently tries to tie up all lose ends. Sorkin was obviously benefited in his script by hindsight. All the key players have their own angle for assisting in the supplying of arms, and all have their own demons that sometimes prevent them from achieving their goal. I’m probably one of the few people not excited about seeing Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in lead roles, but the two of them were adequate for their parts. (As an aside, Joanne Herring was already fifty years old by 1979 and however well kept she may have been, she did not look like Julia Roberts.) Philip Seymour Hoffman, though deftly cantankerous in his role, was cast almost too conventionally for what we are used to seeing from him.
Conservatives have criticized Charlie Wilson’s War because it implies that Osama Bin Laden was funded in the covert operation by making references to the funding of the Mujahideen. Reagan officials deny that Bin Laden received any of the arms. These same individuals have also criticized the film because it implies that Charlie Wilson, a Democrat, was the one most involved in the funding when it actually really didn’t begin until the Reagan administration became involved during Reagan’s second term. Only those actually involved in the transactions know for sure what is the truth on this matter. However, I find the premise that the funding played such a vital role a bit dubious. Certainly, it did help the Afghan rebels fight the Soviets much more effectively, but the Soviets, like the Americans in Viet Nam, may simply have overextended themselves and found themselves involved in fighting an enemy that they did not understand in that enemy’s terrain.
Nevertheless, the movie was truly correct in portraying Charlie Wilson a political enigma. Before Afghanistan, Wilson had openly supported President Somoza in Nicaragua, the leader that was assassinated by the Sandinistas in 1979. While in Congress, Wilson was almost the only Democrat who actually favored providing aid to the Afghans. President Carter was even opposed to the providing of such aid. (As an aside, Ahmad Shah Massoud did not receive most of the aid as is implied in Charlie Wilson’s War. Massoud was perceived by Wilson to be a Russian collaborator.) And the point made in Charlie Wilson’s War that the United States failed to follow-up on the needs of the Afghans once the Soviets left is certainly a valid enough point to bear scrutiny. Not including the current $150 billion spent on the “global war” on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States also spends close to $500 billion annually on national defense. What the United States government spends on other foreign aid (which would include money to feed the world’s hungry and educate other nation’s children) is less than $30 billion. When you think that the federal government spends $2.7 trillion annually and has a debt exceeding $9 trillion, the $30 billion we now spend to avert instability throughout the world seems like nothing.
The problem with Charlie Wilson’s War, as is the problem in almost all depictions of political intrigue on film, is the simplistic assumption that a small number of people actually can control world events. Though the makers of the movie never mean to imply this, Joanne Herring may have come closest to the truth in her thinking that a belief in the divine was what would truly change things. Indeed, the Mujahideen’s belief in the divine may have been what kept them going in face of an evil like the Soviet invasion, but it may also have been this same belief that motivated them to crash planes into buildings on September 11, 2001. No matter how many different ways Sorkin attempts to analyze the situation and no matter how many different perspectives he attempts to use in putting together his script, ultimately it is still arrogance on his part, even with hindsight, to suggest an answer as neatly constructed as he tries to thrust upon us here in Charlie Wilson’s War. If the movie is useful at all, it will provoke laughter and some discussion – it does not provide much in meaningful answers.
January 15, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008