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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 Cold War.

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 the Afghan mujahideen 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 mujahideen’s 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.


In 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 it.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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