Monday, December 08, 2008

Charlie Wilson’s War

Tom Hanks is a good actor. His face is so pleasantly recognizable that one is sometimes tempted not to take him seriously—as the stranded traveler in The Terminal (2004) or the lost man on an island in Cast Away (2000) or the dying AIDS victim in Philadelphia (1993) or, as in Charlie Wilson's War (2007), the happy-go-lucky congressman who discovers that he really cares about the cause of the resistance fighters in Afghanistan during their 1980s struggle against Soviet occupiers. Although Hanks is a bit more handsome than the actual Charlie Wilson (not much more), he is fine in the role. He is, as I say, a good actor. He's a modern-day Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the United States chose for various reasons (Watergate, Vietnam) not to do much more openly in terms of opposition than to complain. The US boycotted the 1980 Olympics games in Moscow. Behind the scenes, some wanted the US to support the resistance. Charlie Wilson's War explains how a Dallas socialite (played by Julia Roberts) and a CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman) convince Wilson to use his influence on a congressional committee to direct funds towards support for Afghani freedom fighters.

This film does seem aware of the deeper issues, especially when the Afghani resistance ends in the defeat of the Soviets. Wilson is lauded for his good deeds, but when he goes to Congress for more support, this time to rebuild Afghanistan, he meets with resistance. In the resulting void, the Taliban move in. The film doesn't explicitly state this, but anyone with a basic command of the facts knows what happened. This is, the film indirectly implies (along with decades of history), a pattern in U. S, foreign policy: support for weapons but not for reconstruction. Another pattern is that we don't always choose our allies carefully—some resistance fighters funded by Charlie Wilson's efforts went on to join up with certain well known terrorists. The film doesn't neglect these facts, but it doesn't explore them deeply either.

For me, the main problem with this film is that it is too casual and light. It spends considerable footage on scenes of Wilson with his beautiful staff, with beautiful companions, with liquor bottles. We see him worrying about U. S. attorney Rudy Giuliani's investigation into his alleged drug use. The film makes Charlie Wilson likeable and therefore relevant to the audience through its portrayal of these foibles. It's a lot of fun being a congressman with a bevy of beautiful young female staffers. It's a lot of fun deceiving the commies and one's colleagues. It's a lot of fun discovering that you might do something worthy to redeem your lackluster congressional record, especially when it serves the cause of freedom and of sleeping with a beautiful socialite. Wilson jokingly comments in the film that the congressional committee that commits funds to his cause does so knowing that the public, and most of Congress, will never know where the money is going. How surprised should Charlie Wilson be, in the end, when the committee won't support his request for funds to rebuild schools in Afghanistan? No one will know about that decision either.

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