The Charlie Wilson’s War Reaction

24 Jan

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.


Posted by on January 24, 2008 in Entertainment, Movies, Politics, Review, Video


11 responses to “The Charlie Wilson’s War Reaction

  1. Skan

    January 24, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    Good review. I was actually pondering if I wanted to watch this movie as no one would go with me. Er, they all rather watch Mad Money. What can I say?

    Anyway, I think I will not as I rather like Phillip Seymour Hoffman. However, the idea of Tom Hanks molesting someone’s navel sends uneasy quivers through me much like when he tried to get friendly with a ball named Wilson. Still, I survived Castaway and I am sure I can survive this.

  2. Ruhi

    January 24, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    This movie is a perfect ‘propaganda’ kind of thing. Even the trailer looks so boring. I’m not impressed.

  3. Terri

    January 25, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    I had two Afghan buddies in college (while you were in kindergarten, I suppose I was in college!) and heard about the atrocities and living conditions in Kabul from them. Part of the elite class “back home,” they crossed the border as refugees with only the clothes on their backs and stories of the “good old days.”
    The mothers were always gracious even though they spoke no English. One was a widow, and another had a husband who worked for the underground and was constantly traveling between Pakistan and India. He consequently married a village woman younger than his daughter and left for the U.S., leaving my friend and her mother to fend for themselves. (If I ever wrote a book, I’d base it on this girl’s lonely, sad, looking for love in all the wrong places life.)
    I don’t think I would’ve cared much for Khaled Hosseini if his stories didn’t hit so close home.
    As for the movie, I liked the preview, so I might just watch it.

  4. Amrita

    January 25, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Skan – thank you 🙂 But Mad Money? I have nothing against chick flicks but… Mad Money?! Xenu got to you, huh? Shouldn’t have snarked at him 😀
    Pic’s not as bad as Castaway and they actually have that Hanks/Blunt scene on Youtube, but they’ve disabled embeds so I couldn’t post it above 😦 Hoffman is the most fun part about this movie – totally deserved that Best Supporting Actor nom.

    Ruhi – thats what I thought going in but now I think it’s not that bad 🙂 It’s Sorkin after all.

    Terri – well, I’d never have guessed it if you hadn’t said so 😀 Your friend’s dad sounds like a real winner. I wish he was unique but for some weird reason, this kind of flight response seems to be the most common one for survivors. Like they need to start all over again. And you should totally write that book. I’d buy it.

  5. Gagan

    January 27, 2008 at 4:28 am

    Interesting review Amrita… sounds like Jack mite have carried it off with a few lless compromises..reminds me of a moment in dalrymple’s book In xanadu where h is ex GF is mooning over the rugged pathan men much to his consternation…had a friend call the sikhs the rob roys of india.but I don’t think he realised the extent of it.. i guess when you get into the upper North West passages…it gets to a a breeding ground for trouble rite in the cross roads of every visiting army…come to think of it…i’m guessing wherever you get porous natural borders where theres stuff worth defending you get bad ass folks living there…the marathas..the maori…the huron and iroquois, the thais.. the list goes on..
    so train them and arm them to do your dirty work and mite have something to deal with if you don’t help develop other parts of their potential….yeah but everthing is easy to say in retrospect…great line …we shall see 🙂

  6. Gagan

    January 27, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    BTW …don’t think i completed my thought for the first thing…it was just the impression of what you said brought to mind that part of dalrymple’s’s just that whenever i am around a group of people , family and friends they all seem to remark on the beauty of the people in that region…that’s not mean’t to be condescending..but not to say it would be to ignore the reaction i’ve observed…I do it myself…as discreitly as possible…anyway there you have it.

  7. Gagan

    January 28, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    one last proviso….realize the use of the word mooning may have come off , well, a little off. No offense intended. I would have mooned over the Afghani women too as I am wont to do..

  8. Amrita

    January 31, 2008 at 2:10 am

    Gagan – really, what have I ever said to make you think I’m that touchy? 😀 Pretty people is pretty people – but they don’t last a long time in that part of the world do they? Remember that Afghan girl in Nat Geo? She’s not all that much older than I am but to look at her she’s lived a longer life than my mom.
    What strikes me about that region is how little development has come to it. Throughout the movie, they were talking about how the countryside lives in medieval times compared to the few cities that have things like electricity and phone lines and I don’t know if things are all that different today, y’know?
    I can see how it made sense from a tactical pov to leave that area as hostile as possible because that must have been a factor in repelling enemy hordes but you’d think things have changed a bit since the 19th century – except it hasnt and they’ve been fighting non stop for generations now. I can’t even imagine what that does to the psyche.
    Add the extremist rules of the Taliban and I really am not surprised that things are so awful in that part of the world.

  9. Raja Sen

    February 5, 2008 at 4:39 am

    Amrita, I finally watched CWW this weekend. And I had a blast. Sure, it isn’t ‘great’ cinema but it is so refreshingly old-school. You know, crusading in a very All The President’s Men kind of way. And while it does it’s own American thang, it doesn’t close its eyes to, well, as Wilson put-it, ‘the end-game.’

    It’s been years since I really enjoyed Hanks on screen — I always think of him as a superb comic actor ruined by a couple of Oscars — and he was perfect here, his knack of winning the audience’s support automatically, no matter what, working brilliantly for the character. As for the navel, well, he looked just about distracted enough for the scene to work for me. (That, and I was ogling the Blunt, ‘tmust be said.)

    Sorkin, of course, does magnificently with dialogue — but that’s no surprise. I loved Jailbait and the other ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ and the line about how men couldn’t quite replace women in the workplace was a super zinger. That plus the anecdotes and the character asides. Hoffman is very nice, very believable but his isn’t my favourite performance of the movie.

    Julia was super. She doesn’t have screentime, but Nichols makes up for it by thrusting her character with attitude and flavour. The real Joanne Harris was plasticky and surgery’d and made up to the nines in a slightly harlotty manner, and Roberts does the same, only tossing in that only-her smile from time to time. My favourite scene in the film involves an open safety pin, Hanks in the bathtub, and her briefing him on aiding a revolution while flicking apart her lashes. Le Wow.

    And yeah, guess we men really need to learn to count. Heh.

  10. Amrita

    February 5, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Raja – I actually liked this one better than Sweeney Todd 😳 Am I less evolved? :mrgreen: I loved that scene with them in the bathroom (heh heh) but I kinda loved that bar pick up between her and hoffman more (the look on her face!) The real Joanne Harris sounds like a real bitch.

  11. Raja Sen

    February 6, 2008 at 4:26 am

    Herring, Herring. My bad. Harris is a children’s novelist one hopes isn’t as snarky.

    But you gotta give Herring points for gumption:

    And I need to make a Todd blogpost asap 😀

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