Charlie Wilson’s War is the extraordinary tale of a little known Texas Congressman who pulled off one of the greatest coups of the Cold War. Like most things written by Aaron Sorkin, it’s smart, funny and politically astute. Going in, I had no idea if I would be able to sit through it.
Oh, I like smart, funny and politically astute. In fact, had this movie been written by anyone else – and I mean anyone – I wouldn’t have watched it. The subject, you see, hits a little too close to home.
At the heart of Charlie Wilson’s War is the Soviet-Afghan conflict: a bloody, brutal mess that dragged on years longer than anyone thought it would, with millions displaced and countless dead, leaving a country absolutely wrecked. Ironically, more than a hundred years before the Soviets marched in to “help” the Afghan government, the British had attempted something of the same sort; their objective then had been to keep Imperial Russia (which it saw as a threat to its dominion of India) out of the neighborhood. It became one of the costliest blunders of the British Empire, one that some credit with inspiring what we Indians call the First War of Independence – the Revolt of 1857. After all, it was the first time we’d seen the might of the British Army not just humbled by a ragtag bunch of guerrilla fighters with nothing more than inferior weaponry and a fierce determination to go down fighting, but positively annihilated.
Perhaps the Soviets should have learned from the lessons of the past. But just as Napoleon’s misadventure in Russia didn’t stop Hitler from dreaming of Russia’s conquest, Britain’s bloody nose wasn’t about to stop the Soviets.
My own memories of that terrible chapter in Afghanistan’s history are twofold. The first is the face of this kid who attended Kindergarten with me. His name was Hamid and he had a few siblings who were also in the school. I always knew they were “the Afghan refugees”. I was five, I didn’t know or care what a refugee was – for all I knew that’s what you called people from Afghanistan much like Tamil Brahmin or Kutchi Muslim or Kashmiri Pandit or Goan Christian. In that manner of children, I simply accepted “Afghan refugee” was what he was. Now when I think back, I wonder what his story was: was he an orphan, had he lost siblings, were his family political refugees? Back then, however, I was a lot more interested in how he looked – absolutely beautiful. It’s been a couple of decades since I laid eyes on him and some pretty kids grow up perfectly hideous, but in the 80s? Hamid was the resident heartbreaker of Upper Kindergarten.
The next instance comes second hand. When I was a toddler my father disappeared from my life for an extended period of time. I don’t know if I missed him or not, but where other children remember their father first, my earliest memory of a male influence is my maternal grandfather in whose home we spent that year. I didn’t know until years later that my father was in Afghanistan at that time, serving as Economic Advisor to the Afghan government. The way he tells it, life in Kabul under curfew was an adventure – but I can only imagine the strain both he and my mother must have experienced. He was never in any actual danger (unless a stray bomb caught him) because he was a UN employee and as such lived in a gazillion times more comfort and security than the average Afghan – and he got out before the last great push against the Soviets began.
Charles Wilson (Tom Hanks) was the man who orchestrated that push.
The way the movie tells it, Wilson’s interest was caught by the fact that at the height of the Cold War, the Soviets were pretty much sauntering into Afghanistan and treating it as they please while the United States studied its fingernails. His first visit to a refugee camp at the behest of Pakistani dictator General Zia ul Haq (Om Puri) fundamentally changed that position – it was impossible to watch the conditions at the camp, talk to the survivors of brutal atrocities carried out in the most casual manner by Red soldiers, and feel nothing more than a politically strategic itch.
With the help of a Texas socialite named Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and a maverick CIA agent called Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Wilson turned a puny $5 million warchest geared towards “turning Afghanistan into their (the Soviets’) Vietnam” into a billion dollar covert operation that ended with the Red Army going back where they came from.
In lesser hands than that of writer Sorkin and director Mike Nichols, this could have become yet another tale of America-saves-the-day or one of those tiresomely preachy War-Is-Bad movies. That it is neither, in spite of the dozens of chances freely handed to it, is a testament to both their skills.
But that doesn’t mean this is a movie without faults. For one thing, after I learned how they’d watered down Hanks’ character to be more in line with his image, I had to wonder about other cinematic licenses they might have taken. I wanted to wait to write this piece until I’d read Wilson’s book for myself but the darn thing’s taking too long to arrive.
[Digression: The debate over whether Hanks was too good to truthfully portray Wilson who, no matter what his choices, is after all a Congressman, sounded bizarre until I watched Hanks in full dirty old man mode, playing with Emily Blunt’s belly button. It’s not like he’s a screen virgin but… I guess it’s true – there really are things you don’t want to see Hanks do. It’s one thing to suggest he’s a manwhore, but to actually see him do it? No thanks. I couldn’t have felt more uncomfortable if that was my father up there.]
There is also a curious sense of flatness throughout the movie. Like it’s caught tight between two needs: its spirit wants it to be a feel good movie about America helping the poor and the downtrodden – most notably in a scene wherein Wilson is berating his colleagues for always helping to get the party started but never waiting to help clean up and thus making more enemies than friends – but its reality is rooted in a 2007 that it can’t ignore.
In 2007, Afghanistan was the sacrifice made for that inept invasion of Iraq. The country is every bit as badly off as it was under the Soviet occupation, it’s just that the aggressors are different and working out of a separate set of convictions. In 2007 we’re living the consequences of that war unleashed by Charlie. And some of us, like me and millions of other Indians, have been living with those effects for nearly two decades now.
In what is possibly the best scene of the movie, Gust and Charlie have a quiet moment to themselves while behind them, people celebrate the Russian retreat. Sorkin-lovers will remember his use of allegories (Leo from The West Wing: “A man falls into a hole…”); here, Gust finally completes the one he tried to tell Charlie once, before it all began:
A boy is given a horse on his 14th birthday. Everyone in the village says, ‘Oh how wonderful.’ But a Zen master who lives in the village says, ‘We shall see.’ The boy falls off the horse and breaks his foot. Everyone in the village says, ‘Oh how awful.’ The Zen master says, ‘We shall see.’ The village is thrown into war and all the young men have to go to war. But, because of the broken foot, the boy stays behind. Everyone says, ‘Oh, how wonderful.’ The Zen master says, ‘We shall see.’
Like Ana says, Even if things are supposed to end badly, it does not mean that we not act to rebuild the bridges we are burning. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to call Charlie an idiot or condemn the CIA for what it unleashed on the region and, later, the world. But at that point, had I been in his shoes? Would I have acted any differently?
Fate decreed that I was on the other side of the fence and it does not make me feel kindly towards Charlie & Co. But perhaps Hamid would have and his need was greater. Maybe Charlie unwittingly saved his family from total obliteration. In the end, which one of us really knows for sure how and to what extent we affect the people around us?
Watch Charlie Wilson’s War. It’s good entertainment. As far as politics goes… we shall see.
Oh, and one last thing. Everyone says Phillip Seymour Hoffman stole the show. Putting my love for him aside, I would have to respectfully disagree. The undoubted star of the show is the large, orange tabby that deigned to lend its presence to all the funny goings-on in Charlie’s office. Attitude like that, my friends, can’t be obtained for love or money. Take a bow, kitty cat. You’re awesome.