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Charlie Wilson’s War (review)

No Good Deed…

It’s one of those “fundamental interconnectedness of all things” things. Or a good-news, bad-news joke. Or an admonition to be careful what you wish for. Cuz — oh, you could laugh till you cry — we secretly armed and advised the guerilla rebels in Afghanistan against their Soviet invaders in the 1980s, and they, the ultimate underdogs, defeated the Evil Empire! Hoorah! And now they’re the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden’s peeps, and now we’re their Evil Empire. Wha’?

Talk about blowback.
But it’s funny, it’s actually funny, this Charlie Wilson’s War, all rapid-fire snark from the deliciously warped mind of West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter here (working from the 2003 nonfiction book by George Crile), and director Mike Nichols (Closer), kinda like his not-about-Clinton-at-all Primary Colors, far away on the alien planet of 1998. It’s full of slyly funny stuff like the titular U.S. congressman imploring an Israeli arms dealer to do something “for the love of Christ.” (Think about it…) Hell, it’s full of things like a U.S. congressman conspiring with an Israeli arms dealer, full stop. Plus hottub shenanigans and Julia Roberts with big hair and full backal nudity from Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman so funny you’ll snort your 48-oz. concession stand Coke out your nose. Imagine if C-SPAN produced a modern screwball comedy, and Charlie Wilson’s War would be it.

Did I mention how funny it is? Not like Adam Sandler, farts-and-humiliation funny, but witty and cleverly bitter in that self-deprecating supposedly bad-for-America Eastern liberal way — oh, I know that dooms it in the current American cultural environment. But how goes this movie will be an indication, I suspect, of how goes America at this late stage of the game. As brisk and frothy as it is, it can be a sneaky lesson in realpolitik. But if the willfully ignorant mainstream can’t even be tricked into getting a minor education about the true state of the world beyond the aisles of Wal-Mart — and America’s less-than-blameless role in it — via a breezy comedy starring Forrest Gump and the World’s Cheeriest Prostitute, we are truly doomed.

Am I bitter and despondent? Of course — only those who aren’t paying attention aren’t. Look: a regular guy from Texas, which is what Charlie Wilson (Hanks: The Da Vinci Code, The Polar Express) is, happens to get himself elected to Congress from “the only district in America that doesn’t want anything,” and so, when he finds himself at the unexpectedly powerful intersection of certain particular subcommittees concerned with defense and national security and black ops and such, well, he can use what influence he has not for his constituents, who are perfectly happy already, but to advance the causes of one rich donor, Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Roberts: Charlotte’s Web, Ocean’s Twelve). Thank God she’s a fairly noble-minded woman who is genuinely concerned about the people of Afghanistan under the boot of invading Soviet troops. She convinces Charlie — slowly, but relentlessly — to help arm the ragtag Afghan mujahedeen fighters standing up to the invaders. The ultimate consquences, a quarter of a century later, are bad enough, but imagine if she’d had more nefarious purposes in mind than helping refugees and keeping Afghanistan non-Communist?

Charlie is putty in her hands — Hanks, more sweetly earthy than we’ve ever seen him before, and Roberts, more whipsmart droll than she’s ever been, are fantastic — and she has a kind of power no private citizen should have: she maneuvers him, though he’s certainly more than willing, into launching a $1 billion covert war to help the mujahedeen defeat the Soviets. Sure, it’s just one more battle in the middle of a century of almost nonstop warfare, but still: these two, with the help of CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Mission: Impossible III), act like their own sovereign nation. They had good intentions, and they worked — if fruitlessly so — to shore up the situation once the Soviets withdrew, but, good lord, the power just a few people can wield is extraordinary.

And is that right? How can even the best-intentioned of folk be fully aware of how their actions will play out in the long run? Was it even the wrong thing to do, to help an impoverished nation defeat a powerful invader? I don’t know the answers, and neither does Charlie Wilson’s War, and that’s fine. The questions need to be asked, and if they can be asked in as entertaining a way as this, all the better.

MPAA: rated R for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
  • Vergil

    It is ridiculous to apply cause and effect reasoning to the training of the Afghan rebels to the attack of 9-11. This way of thinking is so ludicrous I don’t know where to begin. It is like saying the Allies caused WWII by defeating Germany in WWI. It is like saying Issac Newton destroyed Hiroshima by discovering integral calculus. Like saying Lister caused germ warfare. etc etc ad nauseum. Even if you could form some tenuous connection, the fact is that the ends don’t meet. The hijackers were not from Afghanistan. The remnants of the people the US trained are more the Northern Alliance than al Quaida. This is the simplistic knee-jerk thinking more common to professional intellect insulters like Rush Limbaugh and O’Reilly. Of course, one would be a fool to think that the right had a monopoly on impulsive thought.

  • Vergil

    After reading my comment, I think I’d like to make a quick distinction. Though I criticise things you say MaryAnn, I do so with affection. O’Reilly simply makes me ill.

  • MaryAnn

    Did I mention 9/11? No. Did I say the 9/11 hijackers were Afghan? No. But it’s all but indisputable that the rise of the Taliban — which shelters and supports Osama Bin Laden — is intimately connected to the secret American support of the Afghan rebels against the Soviets. Whether you think that support was the right thing to do, or the wrong thing to do, you can’t argue that they’re not connected.

  • Vergil

    The inference is that “we got what we deserved.” It is a common liberal characterization. No, you did not say that, and perhaps did not even mean to imply that. But you did not leave it at “they are connected.” You said that the people we “armed and trained” are now the Taliban and Osama’s “peeps”. This is not true literally or figuratively. Perhaps a few individuals lived then and now, but the Taliban is mostly a Pakistani (and Saudi) infiltration which filled the vacuum left by the Soviets. Again, the people the US worked with (then and now) are mostly connected to the Northern Alliance. Yes, there are connections with everyone involved and I’m sure some even have friends of friends that worked with Kevin Bacon, but the association between the afghan rebels and the current “enemies” of the US is just a red herring (with which I’m sure many a shrubbery has been cut).

  • MaryAnn

    It’s NOT “we got what we deserved.” It’s “if we’re arrogant enough to think we can see and control the outcome of everything we do, and make sure that outcome is to our benefit, we’re fools.” That’s NOT a liberal idea. And it’s certainly nothing new. I believe the ancient Greeks explored it in their entertainment.

  • Vergil

    If that’s the point, then use an example that makes some logical sense. Not a non sequitur based on some erroneus historical perception that takes about a two minute Wiki search to clear up. But no, it is so much easier to assume the US Government screwed the pooch once again. Cynicism is not a Liberal idea either, but when used to inappropriately attack their own governments Liberals tend to wield it with glee.

    By the way, I’m sure many a government agent has slapped himself saying “if we’d only done this” just as many times as he’d said “I wish we wouldn’t have done that”. The arrogance comes in when we try to second guess after the fact and criticise people and actions before we have all, or barely any of the information necessary to do so. To say that the people involved thought that they actually could control the situation is both arrogant and cynical. But to say that they had no hope of influencing the situation is inconceivable.

  • MaryAnn

    I stand by what I’ve written.

    I am not gleeful at the misdoings of the U.S. government. What kind of mind does it take to take pleasure in such things, or to assume that others do?

  • Vergil

    Most of the problems in politics and government is not that people disagree. It is the fact that when confronted with opposition, people refuse to do the research, find out what they are talking about, and adjust their positions accordingly. In politics they call it “flip flopping” as if it is a sin to learn and adapt. Particularly in the media, there is some notion that it is noble to “stand by what I have said” no matter how untenable that position may be.

    I didn’t say you or anyone was gleeful at the misdoings of the Government. What I said was that you and Liberals in general (and some conservatives) are gleeful in attacking the US Government with cynicism.

  • MaryAnn

    Sounds like the same thing to me.

  • Vergil

    Beeing happy with the governments misdeeds is the same thing as attacking the government for it’s misdeeds? One of us is confused. I hope it’s not me, though I’m sure Britney could use a friend in the Looney Bin.

  • misterb

    @Vergil,
    Attacking the government for its misdeeds is the task of the patriot in a democratic society. It’s not the people’s right, but the people’s duty to control the government. You may have heard the epigram that the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance. How do you think we express our vigilance but by constant criticism?

  • Vergil

    Ah, but misterb, criticising the government unjustly is worse than not criticising at all. It is a game played for a long time, but carried to new levels by talk show hosts and internent bloggers. “Attacking the Governement for Fun and Profit! – by Milton Bradly. The problem is that it obscures the places where real criticism is needed.

  • misterb

    But, Vergil, there are no unjust criticisms. That’s the power the people have, to have their own ideas and their ideas don’t have to be based in reality (for example – intelligent design). Nevertheless, it’s still the people’s right to have them. Many talk show hosts would disagree with me, and I don’t get my own talk show, but I can get on the Internet and let people know where I think criticism is needed. You may disagree, but we may both be right. The government is big enough to encompass all kinds of faults.

  • Vergil

    misterb, rational people who have decided to agree on the definition of the term “unjust” believe that there is such a thing. Having a criticism does not make it justifiable. A good example would be blaming the Apollo moon program for bad weather. Many people believe this, yet it is factually untrue, making the criticism unjust. If you don’t, in fact, agree to use definitions agreed upon by most critically thinking individuals (in other words “speak English”) then all I can say is gimble in the wabe with your slithy toves.

  • Vergil

    …or perhaps I am misunderstanding you. Are you, in fact, implying that whether or not the Taliban was a group influenced, supported, and financed by the Saudis, Pakistan, and the UAE and fought against the Northern Alliance and U.S. backed groups is a matter of opinion? I shouldn’t be surprised. There are many people who believe that the Holocaust is a matter of opinion too. The Roman Empire and French Revolution also, no doubt…

  • Jurgan

    Amazing that someone can accuse people of hyperbole in one thread and invoke Godwin’s Law in another.

  • Vergil

    Another unjust criticism. Godwin’s law does not apply because there is no reference to or even implication of Nazi sympathy. And it is not hyperbole. There are actually people who do not believe that piece of history. However what is not so amazing is that you duck the question.

  • Sal

    Say, Vergil. I did that “two-minute Wiki search” you so helpfully advised…I wonder if you bothered to. Why don’t you look up “Taliban” and read the second paragraph under “Origins”, where it explains how Bin Laden helped the CIA and Pakistan’s intelligence agency train Muslim radicals to fight the Soviets? You think maybe some of those radicals might have taken their American-provided arms and gone Taliban? At least one of them did! I’m not particularly interested in arguing with you; I just got upset over your condescending tone and flat attempts at cleverness. If you’re really willing to consider that you might be misunderstanding or misinterpreting someone, why not ask that person in a civil manner to make herself more clear, rather than launching some blanket attack directed at “liberals”? You’re definitely right about one thing: it’s not amazing or even surprising that Jurgen doesn’t want to argue with you about whether “fact” and “opinion” are the same word.

    By the way, MaryAnn, I love your reviews!

  • Vergil

    Apparently you should have taken more than two minutes, Sal. Nowhere in the Wiki article does it say that Bin Laden helped the CIA. The CIA worked with the ISI and the ISI worked with Bin Laden. I already explained about the Kevin Bacon thing. The whole reason Bin Laden got kicked out of Saudi Arabia is because he was criticising the fact that they were working with non-muslims. As bad as Osama is, there is one thing you can say about him: he does practice what he preaches. About the worst thing you can say about the United States involvement as far as this goes is that funneling that many weapons into an area is gonna cause trouble for someone. However, the Towers were not brought down by RPGs.

    These is no misunderstanding MaryAnn’s intention by the intro to the review (“no good deed…”) or by simply reading the first paragraph. Perhaps I was a bit harsh on her. It is just frustrating when liberals keep repeating this same error (and it’s not a blanket attack. It is a very specific attack on a specific point. There are plenty attacks to be made on conservatives, but aren’t the ones who make this particular claim over and over.), and when confronted about it usually try to change the arguement instead of conceding this one little point.

  • MaryAnn

    I think you’re splitting hairs, Vergil. I made no “error.” If you Google “‘osama bin laden’ cia” you’ll find many, many links to stories from all over the spectrum that explain how Bin Laden is a direct product — an inadvertant one, but still a direct one — of the CIA’s involvement in Soviet occupied Afghanistan. There simply is no way around it.

    And I have never said — nor has anyone else — that the Twin Towers were brought down by RPGs.

  • Vergil

    The difference between “had the same goal as” and “is a direct product of” is not splitting hairs. Bin Laden was an inadvertant recipient of support from the CIA, but not a product of. You may as well say that Stalin was a product of our involvement in WWII. Bin Laden was bringing his own money from Saudi Arabia. People seem to think that since Bin Laden and the CIA were fighting the same foes (sort of) at the same time that the CIA must have picked up some little desert rat, dusted him off and sent him off to some secret boot camp and he came back BIN LADEN: SUPER TERRORIST. There is no way some backwater Arab could have gotten the money, smarts, and downright balls to fight the Red Menace without the CIA. Perhaps I haven’t looked in the right places, but you will have to point out to me some of these “stories” (preferabley from someone not selling a book) that show how the CIA created Bin Laden. He was a friend of a friend of the CIA. Someone the CIA trained may have later trained some of Bin Laden’s group which attacked the Embassies in Africa. Bin Laden MAY have once been at a meeting of mujaheddin and CIA agents. All I see are the same third party friend of a friend sixth degree of separation connections to which I’ve already referred. Certaining nothing to suggest that he or the Taliban is a “direct product” of the CIA’s involvement. Or even an indirect product. He may not have obtained as much prominence if we didn’t help end the occupation by the Soviets, but if that’s arguement used, then you may as well blame the Bolshevik Revolution for creating Bin Laden.

    I never suggested that anyone said that the towers were brought down by RPGs. To the contrary, the ridiculousness of such a proposition was my point. The closest the CIA got to “creating” Bin Laden was providing weapons. But even this support had little or nothing to do with his later terrorist activities.

  • MaryAnn

    We’re not gonna find any middle ground on this, Vergil. We’re seeing the same set of events from completely different perspectives.

  • Vergil

    Probably. But at least we’ll always have The Prestige.