I saw Charlie Wilson’s War yesterday. I loved it! The movie focuses on three characters. There’s Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a boozing, womanizing Democratic Congressman from Texas. There’s Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a right-wing socialite who’s concerned about the Russians taking over Afghanistan. And there’s Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the outcast, flamboyant CIA agent. The three of them unite to assist the anti-Communist rebels in Afghanistan.
Their concerns are both geo-political and humanitarian. They don’t want Russia to possess Afghanistan because that could give the Soviets a foothold in the Middle East–near the oil that so many nations depend upon. And they visit a refugee camp in Pakistan, where they encounter children without arms. The Russians sent down explosive toys so that Afghan children could pick them up and get injured, causing the Afghans to focus on tending their own children rather than fighting. Yet, the freedom-loving Afghans keep on fighting!
Charlie Wilson manages to get the covert operations budget increased, and the Afghans then have the weapons to shoot down Russian planes. Charlie has to unite all sorts of people–Muslims and Israelis–to get the weapons into Afghan hands. The Muslim-Israeli relationship was stormy in those days (as it is now), as was that between some of the Islamic nations.
In the end, the anti-Communists drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and the Cold War comes to an end. But, to Charlie Wilson’s protest, the United States walks away from Afghanistan and doesn’t help her build her infrastructure for an inexpensive price. Most of us know how that turned out! The Taliban took over the vacuum and sheltered Al-Qaeda, which later attacked the United States.
Charlie Wilson’s War has quite a few powerful scenes. There’s one in which Charlie Wilson meets with the head of Pakistan, who wants Wilson to get the U.S. to help out the anti-Communist rebels. “Mr. Wilson, I did some research on you before you came here, and I know you have a lot of character flaws,” the chief of state said, as Congressman Wilson nods his head. “But you have a reputation for doing what you promise. Promise me that you will visit the refugee camp.” And Charlie does so, which changes his life! Charlie Wilson acknowledged that he was a flawed human being, but he was also a person of integrity.
In another scene, Charlie is trying to get the support of Congressman “Doc” Clarence Long (Ned Beatty) for the anti-Communist rebels. Doc is head of Foreign Operations on the House Appropriations Committee, and he is reluctant to help out a group of Muslims, whom he considers crazy. But he agrees to go with Charlie to the refugee camp, and he is moved by the Afghans’ courage. He gives them a rousing speech. “My son was injured in Vietnam, so I know the evils of Communism,” he says to thunderous applause. He encourages the Afghans to continue their courageous struggle against the Soviets. Congressman Long and the Afghan rebels were from two different cultures and religions, yet they could connect on a human level.
And, of course, I enjoyed the Afghans shooting down the Russian planes, to the tune of Handel’s Messiah. I know I shouldn’t get excited about war, but the Russians were bullies. They strutted their planes into Afghanistan to shoot at innocent civilians, and they were pretty smug about their superior fire-power. But they were surprised when the Afghans suddenly had high-class weapons of their own, courtesy of the U.S.A.!
We got to hear some familiar names in the course of the movie–John Murtha and Rudolph Giuliani, who was about to prosecute Charlie Wilson for cocaine use. And I saw a Desperate Housewives character: the guy who played Gabby’s second husband, the mayor of Wysteria Lane. In this movie, he was a high-ranking official in the CIA.
The movie leads me to think about certain issues. First, there’s human rights. The political right has always been concerned about human rights abuses under Communist regimes, and rightfully so. But what about the atrocities that Saddam Hussein committed while we were supporting him? Or the innocents killed by the El Salvadoran government and the Nicaraguan contras? Was Joanne Herring concerned about them too, or did she tend to focus on Communist atrocities, since anti-Communism was an integral part of her ideology?
Second, there’s Democrat vs. Republican. In the movie, Joanne Herring does an excellent job detailing the inept foreign policy of the Carter Administration. At the time, our response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was to boycott the Olympics. Ooh! I bet the Russians were shaking in their boots then! But it was because of Charlie Wilson and (later) Ronald Reagan that our anti-Communist foreign policy got some teeth! At the same time, I can’t really say “Republicans good, Democrats bad,” since Charlie Wilson and Doc Long were Democrats. Plus, it was Dan Rather who drew national attention to the plight of the Afghans, even going so far as to spend time in the area.
Third, there’s religion. Joanne Herring was a Christian woman, and a big part of her opposition to Communism was her belief in religious freedom. She herself felt that God had a purpose in bringing together such diverse people as Charlie Wilson, herself, and Gust–all for a good cause: to defeat tyranny. At the same time, she slept with Charlie Wilson! Shouldn’t her evangelical beliefs have led her to oppose fornication? But there are plenty of people who tell me that sleeping around goes on in conservative churches. I guess I always hung around the ultra-conservative evangelicals, so that’s why I’m astounded to hear that!
Finally, I watched the bonus features, which had interviews with the real Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring. They came across as nice, approachable people! Charlie Wilson appeared humble, kind, and laid back. He had a confidence and charisma to him, but (unlike Bill Clinton) he wasn’t the type of person who took himself too seriously or tried to suck up all of the spotlight. And Joanne was a charming lady. I can imagine myself interacting with them at a party, and them actually being interested in what I had to say. But I’d be pretty intimidated around Tom Hank’s version of Charlie Wilson, or Julia Roberts’ depiction of Joanne Herring. Maybe it’s their glamour, or a feeling that I’d be out of my league by talking with them. I’m not sure.
In any case, Charlie Wilson’s War is a must-see! I’ll probably see it again in the near future.
I forgot to mention. The writer of this movie was Aaron Sorkin, who wrote most of the West Wing episodes. That’s another reason the movie is so awesome, and that the characters are so intimidating!