December 22, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War

Forget a box of chocolates - this is the life for me.

Grade: A –
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams
Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mike Nichols’ breezy dramatic-comedies have always carried more provocative social import than his dour melodramas, starting with The Graduate and on through Working Girl, The Birdcage, and 1998’s Primary Colors, the latter being one of the most underrated cinematic political dissertations of the last quarter-century. However, the skewering of the Clinton-era's gossip-rag politics in Colors has been subsumed in the decade since by 9/11 and the dire, sobering overseas crusades that followed.

To that point, the way our present has refracted the prism through which we view the not-so-distant past lies at the heart of Charlie Wilson’s War, the story of how an unremarkable, largely lecherous East Texas congressman got an idealistic burr under his saddle and decided to wage a political war to arm the Afghan mujahedeen in their 1980s guerrilla war against the Soviet Union. Of course, a drug-ingesting, womanizing politician looks positively Capra-esque when portrayed by Tom Hanks, who imbues Wilson with an aw-shucks patina that glosses over every sexual and criminal indiscretion, whether it be an investigation led by then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani into Wilson's alleged drug use or the buxom beauties exclusively populating his office staff.

Indeed, the tie between sex and politics runs deep in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, adapted from George Crile III’s eponymous book, which credits Wilson’s illicit affair with conservative Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) as the flashpoint for his subsequent trips to Pakistan and an Afghan refugee camp, which then segue into Wilson’s one-man arms race. The Costello to Wilson’s Abbott is bedraggled CIA case officer Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who lends both logistical intel and deadpan comic relief to Wilson’s venture.

Credit Nichols’ deft touch in concert with Sorkin’s staccato, West Wing-y vernacular for a narrative that is equally incisive and uproarious. When an Afghani “freedom-fighter” first trains an antiaircraft missile launcher against a Soviet helicopter, the scene resembles when the Neanderthals discovered how to convert leg bones into bludgeons in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. By the time And He Shall Purify from Handel’s Messiah reaches its crescendo, so too does the fever-pitch of Wilson’s Capital Hill con-job to the tune of $300 million in funding and high-tech weaponry.

Wilson’s exploits are colored in a decidedly heroic light, perhaps due Hanks' everyman subtext and undoubtedly by Wilson’s cooperation in the film’s production. Unfortunately, the halo hung round his head converts Charlie Wilson's War into a hagiography that runs counter to reality and fundamentally flaws the film. While Wilson certainly accelerated the vanquishing of the Communist huns, he was also responsible for injecting tons of modern armaments into the hands of Afghan warlords, certainly the Taliban and arguably Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The film's accidental soothsayer might be a cynical CIA station-chief (Denis O’Hare) whose seemingly callous solution on how to combat the Soviet invaders is to let them bleed themselves dry in a protracting rebel war against Afghan cannon fodder, a la the United States’ Vietnam experience.

Over its first 80 minutes, Charlie Wilson’s War steadily marches toward its inextricable conclusion: that not only was Wilson’s war ultimately the byproduct of right-wing manipulation and warmongering that later turned its sights against their Afghan beneficiaries once the Cold War ended and a finding a new villain was necessary, but that his short-term victory came at a greater, longer-lasting cost. However, Nichols suddenly takes a detour with off-handed warnings about “a sudden influx of weapons” and a hurried epilogue that includes a quote from Wilson about how we “f**ked up the end game." They come off as superfluous and, worst of all, a strained attempt to whitewash Wilson’s role in the debacle to come. In a land that has known little but bloody power struggles for thousands of millennia, the notion that the U.S. Congress’ failure to build enough schoolhouses is to blame for Afghanistan's (and, ergo, our) current morass is misguided and insulting. Hearkening back to Kubrick’s rubric, we gave away the clubs to win the battle for the mudhole; in return, the victors toppled our monoliths.

Neil Morris

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