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Charlie Wilson's War

dir: Mike Nichols
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Charlie Wilson, you know, the guy who single-handedly defeated the Russians in Afghanistan. That Charlie Wilson?

Okay, so he’s not a household name. But if you’re not of the opinion that St Ronald Reagan, dressed as Rambo, beat the Soviet Empire to death with his bare fists, then you might be curious about this flick which purports to tell the ‘true’ story behind the Afghanistan War.

‘Good Time Charlie’ (Tom Hanks) is a drunken, womanising coke-fiend Democratic Congressman from Texas. In 1980, while drinking with strippers and hookers in a hot tub, he watches Dan Rather on 60 Minutes tell a sorry tale about the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet forces. Now, Charlie’s only real achievement to date has been getting re-elected five times, and all he really cares about is drinking and hot women. So he’s already a hero in my book.

The transition for his character is going from a hedonistic deal-making backslapper of a politician with no ambition to a hedonistic deal-making backslapper who wants to defeat Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Why? Well, I’m not too sure.

Hanks plays the role with the charm, aplomb and accent you may expect, and it’s a lively enough if hollow characterisation. Maybe this congressman was bored, or maybe he was genuinely moved by the plight of the Afghans, as shown living in squalor in refugee camps in Pakistan. But whatever the reasons, which include pleasing a strange Texan socialite (Julia Roberts) both ideologically and physically, Charlie makes his way around the world in order to cook up a working strategy to combat Soviet aggression.

No-one is ready to take Wilson seriously at first, since his reputation not only precedes him but is also reinforced by occasions such as a Federal prosecutor called Rudy Giuliani going after him because of allegations of cocaine usage. Also, it’s hard to take him seriously when he’s asking for booze in the presidential palace of Pakistan’s staunchly abstemious leadership, who he would have to have known were teetotallers in the extreme.

Still, once Gust, a deranged CIA deputy chief latches onto him for the opportunity to kill Russians (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), people start to take Charlie seriously, especially since he controls the CIA’s ops budget.

We are subjected to war footage of Soviet forces shooting Afghan villagers from the safety and comfort of their helicopters, and images of children whose arms were blown off by toy bombs designed to attract children and to cripple a nation which will have to look after not legions of maimed soldiers but legions of maimed and mutilated children. The ugliness of what the Soviets perpetrated on this poor country is not over-emphasised, but it is made manifest.

The urgency with which Wilson now approaches this Afghan problem leads to strange alliances and questionable deals with countries who otherwise wouldn’t piss on each other if they were on fire. The unique circumstances of the Cold War preclude obvious American involvement, so the weapons Wilson, his CIA lackey and a brilliant CIA strategist, Michael Vickers want to supply the Afghans, have to be weapons not of America’s making. What it comes down to is figuring out a way to get Russian weapons to the mujahadeen (holy warriors) without the Russians finding out.

It’s fascinating because it’s true. Not the script, or the levels of involvement of the players as represented, but the knowledge that all these occurrences did come to pass, whether perennial drunk Wilson really had as much to do with them as is claimed here. Operation Cyclone did funnel ultimately billions of dollars through the CIA to Pakistan and the persons they favoured to beat the Russians.

But the alternate, initial policy of the CIA and the State Department under Carter and Reagan is also represented, where the intention to ‘beat’ the Russians was less important that getting them potentially into their own Vietnam. The intention, with absolutely no consideration to the lives of Afghanis, was to have the Soviet Empire pour money, men and materiel into an unwinnable war, thereby perhaps speeding the downfall of America’s rival superpower.

Of course, there’s little if any more than a fleeting reference made to the fact that, under Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski played a crucial role in putting into effects US policy that would ‘encourage’ the Soviet invasion in the first place. Because, you know, unlike what the film represents, the States was happily funnelling money to the mujahadeen BEFORE the Soviets invaded.

And it worked. Of course, as interesting as this history lesson is, the film would have only been a historical footnote if it weren’t weighed down with contemporary resonance. You see, the film makes the obvious points that expecting everything to be ‘fine’ after the Russians left was probably the most naïve expectations these people could possibly ever have had. After all, how do you arm and train shitheel tribal warlords like Ahmad Shah Massod and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had no qualms killing Afghans instead of Russians, and expect everything to be fine?

The chilling moment, which is meant to be more deeply ironic than anything else, is when a clueless but soft-hearted senator (Ned Beatty) is moved to make a speech to Afghan refugees about how America is going to give them the arms they need to drive out the Soviet invaders. Unsurprisingly, the chant going up from the excitable crowd, being “Allah Akbhar” is sweet music to American ears at that particular time.

How times change. This being an Aaron Sorkin script, he of acclaimed political fantasy series The West Wing fame, the real sting in the tale is laying the blame for the subsequent civil war and the rise of the Taliban squarely at the feet of those who washed their hands of the Afghanistan Adventure as soon as the Russians left. When at its peak Wilson was commanding budgets of $500 million, he can’t even get $1 million out of Congress afterwards in order to rebuild some schools.

Thankfully, the flick ends without anything as gratuitous as an image of the smoking crater of Ground Zero. But it does end with the superlative quote from a consummate but not self-deluding politician: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... and then we fucked up the endgame.”

I found it enjoyable and fascinating, from beginning to end. The way the flick was marketed as a comedy defies any definition of the word ‘comedy’ that I care to comprehend. Sure, it’s light-hearted and amusing, but I don’t think I got more than a smile out of the funnier moments. Hoffman overacts in this like he overacts in everything he does, but it’s enjoyable enough and suits the part. Hanks can play a smarmy, slick, Clintonesque congressman in his sleep, so such a part isn’t much of a stretch for him, but it’s decent enough even if there’s little depth to the character.

Why Julia Roberts is in this is a mystery. About the only reason I can think of is that she wanted a chance to show the world how well she’s slimmed back down after squeezing out the twins a couple of years ago. And sure, she’s slimmed down. She doesn’t do too badly, but it certainly not Pretty Woman quality.

It’s a fascinating story with an insight into just how complicated such international events are. I don’t look at it at all as some kind of definite history, because the last time I checked I wasn’t retarded. And if I am retarded, possibly through years of binge-drinking and fighting, I’m not quite retarded enough to confuse the manner in which someone can craft a historical narrative so that it is entertaining and easily digestible, with actual history. Actual history is always far uglier, messier, and far more complicated. Too complicated for a pleasing 100 minute which breezily recounts the adventures of American politicians and covert ops agents.

Mike Nichols, most famous for flicks like The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Closer and I Still Know What You Did Next Summer (perhaps the last one is a lie), does a decent job coaxing effortlessly light-hearted performances out of the assembled task, in what could have been a dull lecture or lesson in US fallibility on the international stage. He’s a veteran director who knows how to strike the right tone to suit material. Usually. Often. Sometimes. Well, at least in this instance.

I enjoyed it, but I can imagine many people could be bored out of their fucking skulls by it. I’m a bit of a history and espionage nerd, so I’m the natural audience for this kind of story. Others will have to judge for themselves whether they can tolerate the subject matter, the bad hairstyles, or Tom Hanks in concentrated form.

7 stinger missiles downing Hind helicopters to the tune of Handel's Messiah out of 10

“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... and then we fucked up the endgame.” – Charlie Wilson’s War