During the decade since 9/11, many films have been made on the theme of "terrorism." And I have reviewed many of them. I reprise those reviews in this series of posts, starting with
Charles Nesbitt Wilson, aka Good Time Charlie, served the Second Congressional District of Texas from 1973 until 1996. Reputedly a hard-drinking womanizer, Charlie Wilson is remembered in a couple of books, and as of Friday, December 21st, in a new Mike Nichols films mainly for funding covert arms to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. In the summer of 1980, while California Governor Ronald Reagan was making his second bid for the White House, Wilson reportedly read an Associated Press story about Afghan refugees fleeing into Pakistan to escape slaughter by the invading Russians. In the film, Wilson visits a refugee camp, where the children-amputees, in particular, move him into action.
That action, as a member of the House of Representatives Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, was to double the CIA's "black ops" funds for the Afghan resistance. If Wilson was the Mujahedeen's Lone Ranger, his Tonto was CIA operative Gust Avrakotos, the son of a Greek-immigrant soda manufacturer from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. Avrakotos aggressively lobbied Congress for his cause, the defeat of the Russians. His tactic was simple: arm the resistance with Stinger missiles. The math, as Tom Hanks, portraying Wilson, points out to his subcommittee colleagues, is just as simple: a Soviet aircraft costs something in excess of $20 million; a Stinger costs something less than $70 thousand. Go figure.
The Charlie Wilson-Gust Avrakotos partnership stands on its own as the stuff of great buddy/adventure films. What makes the Mike Nichols take on their enterprise highly entertaining is the satirical way in which Director Nichols tells their tale. The film opens with Wilson/Hanks in a Las Vegas hot tub with naked showgirls. Throughout the film Hanks and co-star Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Avrakotos) exchange quips and jibes ala Crosby and Hope in a 'Road' movie. For Dorothy Lamour, substitute Julia Roberts. Roberts portrays Joanne Herring, a born-again rich girl from East Texas, who sleeps with Wilson, raises funds to bring down the Soviet Union, is the Honorary Consul to Pakistan, and refers to the Congressman's all-female staff as "sluts."
The humor in Charlie Wilson's War is welcome in the wake of a long series of grim post-9/11 films I've reviewed which include several about the fateful day itself, as well as Spielberg's gory and morally ambivalent Munich, and such cynical works of film-fiction as Syriana and The Kingdom.
Still, Nichols never lets us stray too far from the realities of war and real politics. Charlie Wilson is not the only one whose eyes fill with tears at the sight of Afghan toddlers lacking limbs, because they picked up devices they thought were toys. One refugee-camp worker tells the Congressman, "The Russians know that it's harder to deal with a wounded child than a dead one." And so, the implication runs, better to scatter small explosives, that sever arms and legs, rather than lethal mines.
Upon the Soviet evacuation of Afghanistan, Avrakotos, ever the realist, savors the ultimate victory at a party thrown by Wilson only briefly, before cautioning the Congressman that a Soviet-free Afghanistan must be rebuilt. Gust tells his sidekick in a balcony scene, the party in full flare behind them, that the radical fundamentalists are moving into the political vacuum left by the Russian retreat.
In the end, Wilson is depicted struggling ineffectively to pry a million or two from his subcommittee to rebuild Afghan schools. "We always leave," he complains to his colleagues' deaf ears. Did Wilson really say that? Did he really see what was in store for a liberated Afghanistan? Or are Nichols and Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin, who scripted the film, exercising poetic license with 20/20 hindsight?
No matter, Charlie Wilson's War, ends the laughter and elation of victory with the ominous foreshadowing of the Taliban terror in the offing. The look on Charlie Wilson's face, as his Congressional colleagues decline to invest so much as a measly million in the Afghan infrastructure, is reminiscent of the look on Dustin Hoffman's face at the end of the Nichols classic, The Graduate. Hoffman, having just run off with the love of his life, sits with her at the back of a bus, her groom and half her wedding party panting along behind them. Both Hanks and Hoffman tell filmgoers, "There's worse to come."
I can recall reading back in 1969 a magazine article speculating about what that look might have meant for Hoffman's graduate: the military draft, criminal charges of one sort or another brought by his girlfriend's fiancée and their families, financial destitution. With regard to Afghanistan no such speculation is necessary. Uncle Sam is there today and is likely to remain there for the foreseeable future, finishing the job only half accomplished by the vanquishing of the Soviet army.
A final note: Almost as intriguing as the film itself are the video clips included on the movie's official Website. These include snippets from a 1988 60 Minutes profile of the real Good Time Charlie, firing a machine gin and riding horseback in native costume on the Pakistan-Afghan border, as well as bits from Courage Is Our Weapon, the propaganda film produced by Joanne Herring in 1981.
Charlie Wilson's War may rekindle the controversy about how big a role he, and for that matter Ronald Reagan and the "Reagan Doctrine" of opposing the Soviets everywhere, played in the crumbling of the Evil Empire. But the 60 Minutes and Courage clips attest to the fact that Wilson, Herring, and Avrakotos were real-life Cold Warriors extraordinaire.
A selection of my film reviews is available in my collection of columns and reviews:
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