Charlie Wilson's War

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I finally got to watch the latest film from Participant Productions, Charlie Wilson’s War. While the company has had a fairly good track record with political movies, such as Syriana or Good Night and Good Luck, this movie represents a downturn in quality, which is unfortunate, as I had some high hopes for this film.

I don’t know too much about the background history here – I only have one book on Afghanistan, which I’ve been looking over a little to check some of the events. From what I have read, however, this film is largely self-contained in a historical vacuum, something that’s never good when trying to get a historical concept across. The movie presents a fairly simple, straightforward story of how a congressman from Texas helped push the Soviet military out of Afghanistan.

The first half of the film does accomplish this to a fairly good extent while building the character of Charlie Wilson. We see how he’s a womanizer and one who loves his alcohol, and that he seems to be fairly lost in what he really wants in life, until he sees a news report from CBS news about the Afghani fighters. After a trip to Pakistan, Charlie Wilson finds his cause in life, to arm and equip the resistance fighters in the country to repel the Soviet military. At this point, he meets up with a rough CIA agent named Gust, who’s in charge of the region, along with ‘three other guys’. It’s determined that Wilson is at the proper point in the government to funnel a lot of money into the cause.

This first part works fairly well. One of the things that I was really looking forwards to about this movie was the fact that Aaron Sorkin was the screenwriter here. I’ve recently become enamored of his work with the West Wing, and was hoping for something along the same lines, just with even bigger faces. This comes across at times with his dialog, but for large sections of the film, I never got the sense that this was even touched by Aaron Sorkin.

Historically, there are issues here. From what I’ve read, there was a lot more money going into the country. They do get other things right, such as where they got the weapons, from Israel and Egypt. Even some of the international relations regarding Pakistan are addressed. However here, we just get lip service to what is really an extremely complicated issue that’s been boiled down for a movie-going public. Additionally, I suspect that there were a number of details that were sensationalized at various points, and I don’t know if this comes from the book or from the film.

This first half of the film is where the interesting material stops. Once the story is set up with all of the various parts, (even despite a side story about Congressman Wilson being investigated for illegal drug use, which was completely unnecessary), the film goes to exposition, and largely done through stock footage from either newsreels or wartime footage, showing the successes of the Afghan forces against the superior Soviet tanks and helicopters. There’s a paradigm in writing that says show, don’t tell, which seems to have been the model here. Where it works in most places, it utterly fails here. We see what looks like extremely poor, video-game quality footage of what the Soviets are up to, as if we need to be reminded that they’re the bad guys, and then later on image after image of the helicopters blowing up. Not only would this have been a bit better if the production crew had re-created those moments, this throws the pacing of the film out the window, jumping what seems to be months or even years between shots. The footage is poor and pulls the viewer right out of the film. Historical details aren’t followed here either. On screen, there were only three helicopters, while in reality, on September 25th, 1986, when eight Hind gun ships were blown out of the sky, and was the first time that the Soviets suffered extreme losses at the hands of US armed rebels, with the new Stinger missiles, some of which are probably still in use today.

This leads to the main message of the film, which is brought to the audience’s attention right at the end, when it’s announced that the Soviet military has pulled out of Afghanistan and when people are trying to decide what to do with the country now. While a billion dollars were pumped into the effort (at least in the movie), they weren’t willing to spend anything on schools or infrastructure. Furthermore, at the end of the film, we learn that fanatics have taken control of the capital, which would become the Taliban. Essentially, the film has pointed out that much of the problems were essentially created because the US didn’t finish the job over there, which seems to have been a very common talking point over the past couple of years with the Iraq war.

This, to me, is a very clumsy attempt at political criticism, especially following two films that have done this very thing. Syriana, which followed the complex chain of politics, corruption, foreign oil and Islamic radicalism, did an absolutely fantastic job at weaving these issues into a complex, yet accessible story by looking at all of the storylines. This probably could have been done fairly well with Charlie Wilson’s War, if one were to look at this film in more than just the vacuum that it’s in as it is. Good Night and Good Luck, which was released the same year, also contained a lot of political commentary, government vs. free speech and the influence that governmental officials have in times of worry. While this took place in the 1950s, this film also contained a number of real-world parallels.

Charlie Wilson’s War could have been the most relevant movie in this genre. The attempt at political commentary is too overt and clumsy, while the filming and acting distracted further. (Julia Roberts did a fairly poor job here, while Tom Hanks was a bit better. Philip Seymour Hoffman was easily the best actor of the three.) But to my eyes, the film seems to be extremely revisionism and reactionary, by pointing the finger at earlier politicians for blame, rather than examining this in the context of the entire chain of events. I highly doubt that fundamentalists attacked the United States because the US helped rid them of the Soviet military while not providing anything for services and rebuilding afterwards. No, this was just one piece of what’s turned out to be a long chain of events in US-Middle East relations. The United States backing Israel, our actions during the first Iraq war and Saudi Arabia and more have contributed to this mess. I suspect that had these events not occurred, we still would have many of the same problems today. This is why history cannot be presented in a vacuum.

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