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.