12/25/2007

Charlie Wilson's War

Boy, do I miss Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The American President). I'll freely admit that Studio 60 could have been better, but man, when he was running The West Wing its first four years, there was nothin' better on TV, and watching Charlie Wilson's War brought back a little bit of the magic.

Directed by the inestimable Mike Nichols from a script by the aforementioned Sorkin, adapted from the novel by George Crile, Charlie Wilson's War is the story of a seemingly small-time Democratic congressman from Texas, the hard-drinking, cocaine using Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), and his pivotal role in aiding the Mujahideen after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the early 1980s. Working with a CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman is hysterical; he steals every scene he's in), Wilson, who was on the Congressional Defense Appropriations subcommittee, used his political connections to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons, most notably shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, to the Afghani freedom fighters. Wilson was instrumental in the Afghani defeat of the Soviet Union in 1988 and its eventual collapse in 1991.

Watching these master craftsmen ply their trades is truly something to behold and enjoy. Everyone, from Sorkin and Nichols to Hanks and Hoffman are at the tops of their games. The movie is both humerous and deadly sober. It's as much a chastisement of American foreign policy over the past 30 years as it is a celebration of American ingenuity. We sure as hell beat down the Soviet Union, but in the process, did we sell our collective soul to a greater threat? Our actions in Afghanistan, training, funding and arming what would become the Taliban was a victory in the short term only. America, Charlie Wilson tells us, is wonderful at securing short-term gains, but it's the lack of long-term foresight that could bring the empire crumbling down around us.

This is most notably evident in a telling scene toward the end of the film, when, after the Mujahideen have defeated the great Soviet army, America, after having spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the war, refuses to pony up even a million dollars to help rebuild Afghanistan's infrastructure. We gave them weapons of various degrees of destruction, but we wouldn't help them rebuild their schools. And that is American foreign policy in a nutshell.

Charlie Wilson's War is a very good film, maybe even a great one. It's entertaining, no question, but the deeper, more pertinent cautionary tale is what I would hope most people walk away from the theatre thinking about.

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