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December 24, 2007
‘Charlie Wilson’s War’
Finally Gets It Right
Mike Nichols’s new film, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” does everything that
“Lions For Lambs,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition,” and every other
failed political film of the past six months failed to do. It makes a
cogent political point, its politics are more idiosyncratic and it’s
damn entertaining. It’s an actual movie, not just a lecture.
Based on a nonfiction book by the late journalist George Crile, the
movie tells the astonishing true story of Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a
hard-partying Democratic congressman who, along with CIA agent Gust
Avrakatos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), almost single-handedly approved a
covert war in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Wilson, an Armed Services
committeeman, managed to get billions of dollars approved for the war,
which went on throughout the 1980s and ultimately led to the expulsion
of the Russians from that country, helping bring about the end of the
The movie takes something far away from the standard Hollywood left-wing
doctrine about oil and imperialism, taking a much more convincing
position that America can, in fact, do good in the world and, in some
situations, even has a duty to do so. After all, its three heroes are a
hawkish Democratic congressman, a millionaire right-wing Texas socialite
and a CIA bureaucrat – not exactly the sort of people generally beloved
among the Daily Kos crowd.
But at the same time, the film acknowledges that U.S. actions can have
undesirable effects. The movie is subtle with this point, rather then,
say, devoting the entire last 20 minutes to a dramatization of
anti-American blowback. I kept expecting the film to contain a whole
third act full of moralizing about how those who America helped among
were the same people who attacked us on 9/11 – or even a repetition of
the false canard that “we created Osama Bin Laden.” But the film only
subtly implies this.
Indeed, left-wing types will likely object to “Charlie Wilson’s War” on
the grounds that it doesn’t come down hard enough on Wilson and Co. for
causing the blowback, while right-wingers could easily object because
the movie downplays the role the sainted Ronald Reagan played in ending
the Cold War.
There’s a chilling scene in which a Christian conservative American
politician leads the Afghan fighters in a chant of “Allah hu Akhbar”
that looks uncannily like the usual Muqtada al-Sadr rally. But while we
get sly references to modern political figures like Rudy Giuliani and
John Murtha, there’s no Bin Laden character, and the film is honest
about the fact that the
eventual transformation into the Taliban was incremental and indirect.
It represents a strong counterpart to another recent film, “The Kite
Runner,” which soft-pedaled politics while telling the story of people
in Afghanistan affected by the Soviet invasion, and eventually the rise
of the Taliban.
Nichols’s new film comes from a script written by Aaron Sorkin, whose
late, lamented TV series, “The West Wing,” while unquestionably liberal,
was always much more about the joy of public service and the thrill of
political insiderism than it ever was about encouragement of left-wing
politics. The scenes in Congressman Wilson’s office, which often
resemble door-slamming farce, feel sort of like Tom Hanks is
guest-starring on a “West Wing” episode.
The film also brings to mind another film directed by Mike Nichols,
1998’s adaptation of Joe Klein’s bestselling “Primary Colors,” which
went beyond John Travolta’s mere impression of Bill Clinton to give a
refreshing examination into Clintonism itself. “Charlie Wilson’s War”
is reminiscent, too, of Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” from 2005, which,
contrary to its reputation, worked just as well as an international
espionage thriller as it did as a political allegory.
The scenes in which Wilson and Avrakatos travel the world in order to
assemble a coalition – which includes Israelis, Egyptians and Pakistanis
– are nothing short of fascinating in the way they demonstrate the
world’s bizarre alliances and feuds. Contrast that with Robert DeNiro’s
sluggish 2006 history of the CIA, “The Good Shepherd,” which somehow did
the impossible – made international spy intrigue seem boring.
a year of films trying and failing to make sense of the current
political situation with lectures and emotional blackmail, “Charlie
Wilson’s War” is a breath of fresh air – an actual, honest-to-God movie
that makes its point while also remaining entertaining. I can only hope
audiences aren’t too bummed by world events to go to the theater and see
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