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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by George Crile

Directed by Mike Nichols

Tom Hanks:  Charles Wilson
Julia Roberts:  Joanna Herring
Philip Seymour Hoffman:  Gust Avrokotos
Amy Adams:  Bonnie Bach

I thought I was going to be reviewing Gog, a 1954 killer-robot movie, on the suggestion of Edward McEneely (a fan of the blog, and the person who gave me my first positive Facebook comment on the first review). Unfortunately, my totally legitimate copy of the film on DVD has an audio track that sounds like a staticky dentist's drill. So instead, let me turn a critical eye toward a movie that is more or less the 96 Page Origin Special for the September 11 attacks. Sorry, Ed. I'll look for something from the Fifties for the next one.

The main story is an extended, years-long flashback bookended by a ceremony where the CIA awards Congressman Charles Wilson the rank of "Honored Colleague", a title that has never been bestowed upon a civilian before. And as the camera tracks in on Tom Hanks' face, we get the real story that Wilson is remembering.

Which starts in April of 1980--so at the point where the cultural hangover of the Me Decade was lurching into the Reagan years--with Congressman Wilson naked in a hot tub in Las Vegas with two strippers, a nude model and a grifter with a combover that wants $29,000 from Wilson to make a television pilot "like Dallas, but set in Washington" and starring the nude model (who takes offense as the strippers assume she's also a stripper). Wilson finds a news update from Afghanistan to be more interesting than the naked woman in the hot tub (and much more interesting than the yammering about setting up a TV pilot from the balding grifter, who looks a little bit like the larval form of Paul Giamatti). The news report features Dan Rather talking to the mujahideen freedom fighters (SPOILER:  this takes place before they were Al-Qaeda terrorists, and back before they were at war against America instead of the Soviet Union) and their intention to fight against the USSR after that nation invaded theirs. The strippers are deeply impressed with Wilson's booze and drug tolerance as well as his knowledge of things that are happening in the world at that time; they say they don't meet a lot of people who know things and also party. Wilson shoots down the idea that he has a spare thirty grand for a destined-to-fail TV pilot as gently but firmly as he can and returns to his office in Washington, D.C.

Back at his office, Wilson hears a complaint from Larry Liddle, a constituent and donor about a Nativity scene at a firehouse in Nacogdoches; the ACLU is against it and somewhat surprisingly, the Texas politician agrees with them. This sequence also shows that for all his numerous vices and faults, Wilson is actually a consummate dealmaker as well as a really sharp guy (among his habits--he reads his news off an Associated Press telex rather than waiting a day for the same articles to show up in a newspaper). Almost on a whim, he snags a guy in passing who works on the Appropriations Committee and doubles the amount of aid going to the Afghan terrorists freedom fighters from five million to ten (which sets up a running gag in that this is a classified budget run by a secret committee, and virtually everyone Wilson talks to for the next half hour of run time knows about it, and that he's the one who decided that the budget should be increased).

The scene shifts to CIA headquarters, where Gust Avrokotos is being notified he isn't getting the Helsinki station chief job he was promised, and then just to hurt his feelings, the poor bastard is dressed down by his boss for being coarse and undiplomatic, and for being barely an American (because Gust's father was an immigrant from Greece instead of someone who could trace his lineage back to the Mayflower). He responds with "Well, I'd like to take a moment to review the several ways in which you're a douchebag", so there's probably something to the charge that he is coarse and undiplomatic. After a bellowing tirade about loyalty and about how he just wasted two years learning Finnish, Avrokotos shatters his boss' office window, tells his direct supervisor in the CIA to go fuck himself, and stomps off to reap the career-path rewards for acting like this. With nobody else willing to give him anything to work on of any consequence, he accepts an invitation to work in a group with the stated goal of "killing Russians".

Next up? The introduction of Joanne Herring, a woman who lives in Charlie Wilson's district and is full of passionate intensity about the plight of women living in Afghanistan. She's raising money for them in the most Texan-rich-cracker-Taliban-woman way possible:  a cheerleader slave auction, where rich oil millionaires can place bids to get their cars washed by sorority sisters in "special outfits".  Wilson is intrigued; Bonnie Bach, his administrative assistant, is appalled to the point of physical revulsion. Herring treats Bach like a servant instantly (one gets the feeling that she treats everyone not in the one percent like a servant), and sneaks off to have sex with Congressman Wilson as an early gambit to get him on her side. Which works. She knows that Wilson is on a very specific combination of committees that will allow him to boost the Afghan secret military aid budget to an infinite level; she's using him as a lever to influence the other budget-setters to get hundreds of millions of dollars in the hands of Osama bin Laden the noble freedom fighters who would be our eternal allies in Afghanistan. Herring gets Wilson to agree to work for the freedom of the Afghans and the destruction of the Soviet Union. She gets him to meet with the president of Pakistan by simply telling him the meeting is already set up and it's too late to back down without looking bad.

The rest of the story is more or less a series of setbacks and advances, with Avrokotos joining forces with Wilson in order to figure out which weapons will actually be able to knock down Soviet helicopters (before Wilson's involvement, the Afghans were using bolt-action rifles that the Hind gunships were specifically modified so they wouldn't even be dented by those rounds). They talk with a surprisingly young-looking author of a report on how to disrupt Soviet activities in Afghatistan (Gust:  "See the nerdy looking kid in the white shirt playing chess against four guys at once? Guess which guy is secretly the CIA's weapons expert. It's the nerdy looking guy in the white shirt. C'mon; there's no reason this can't be fun.") and start working on a way to import Israeli-manufactured weapons into Afghanistan. Their eventual plan is hampered by the realities of the Cold War--if the Russians see that the mujahideen are carrying American weapons they might retaliate against America. America is not willing to risk a hot war with the USSR (or, infinitely worse, a nuclear one) so everything going to the Afghans has to look like they might have captured it from an unlucky Russian.

And the plan is simplicity itself--keep funding the Afghans so they can slowly bleed the Soviet army dry. Shoot down helicopters and planes one by one (or a few at a time) with Stinger missiles and make them spend hundreds of millions of rubles pacifying the Third World goatherders in Afghanistan and turn the country into a rocky, mountainous version of Vietnam. And, not that this could ever backfire a decade or two along the line, teach the leaders of the terrorists noble holy warriors how to paralyze and bankrupt a superpower using tools that cost a thousandth as much as the weapons that will be pointed at them in retaliation.

The action sequences are not what you would normally get from a Hollywood blockbuster--among other things, the first time that the jihadists use the Stinger missiles to knock down Soviet helicopters the flaming wreckage lands on the village they were trying to protect. But on the other hand, I certainly wouldn't be able to judge the way the shredded burning metal would fall from a Hind gunship the first time I slapped one out of the sky either. And as the Afghan terrorists soldiers get more and more missile launchers, they get better and better at figuring out how to use them without any collateral damage on the ground. Which eventually leads to a scene where an old half-senile American politician (played by acting ensemble lifetime MVP Ned Beatty) talks to a crowd of Afghan refugees and they ignore every syllable the translator says to them until the American says God will always punish the wicked. And then we get a scene of chanting, screaming, cheering Middle Easterners with hatred in their minds. The film plays it off as a simultaneous triumph and unheeded warning, with the people in the scene thinking they've really got something going now and the audience shivering with the knowledge that the politicians have absolutely no idea where this is going to end up. Of course, since 2002 or so American mass media doesn't present chanting Islamic soldiers as a positive development.

As the secret plot escalates (from tens of millions of dollars in secret classified aid to billions, every dollar secretly matched by the Saudi royal family), Gust tries to keep Charlie's mind on the end game more than the immediate actions they're taking and tries even more so to make the politician understand that the actions the US is taking in the early 1980s are going to have repercussions that nobody at the time could predict. Which is why the movie comes off as half a comedy of manners and half a story of inexorable Lovecraft-style doom, and why I recommend it unreservedly to anyone who wants to know just what the fuck happened in order to let the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 to take place.

I think Mike Nichols secretly thinks that Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring are actually the villains of this story. Herring is a brittle, snobby, dismissive and contemptuous bored rich housewife from Texas who dabbles in international politics as a hobby. She sneers at virtually every other character in the film and uses threats, blackmail or religion to get her way at every turn. And Wilson is a sullen, vengeful drug-and-booze sponge who got into politics in order to punish a neighbor for killing his dog when he was fourteen years old. Having them played by superstars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts fools the audience into liking them; it's only in retrospect or on a second viewing that one can see past the movie-star charisma and realize just how awful both people are, how easy it is to dislike them once you pay attention to their behavior, and how horrific their plan is going to turn out to be. And because both actors play their characters as if they actually were doing the right thing, it occurs to me that the director might not have even told them they were going to be playing the bad guys.

Gust Avrokotos, by contrast, is a lumpy middle-aged guy who is a consummate professional. In every scene he's monitoring the area to see who is there and how much information he can release to them; more than once he simply refuses to comment when there's a pair of ears nearby that he doesn't know he can trust. And he's the only character in the film who takes any view of the long-term consequences of his actions (or the actions of anyone he's working with). It's a little bit of an irony that he'd be the one trying to get Wilson to fund reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union falls; the CIA certainly has had plenty of opportunity to collect overtime pay in the region since, say, the fall of 2001. For a movie that came out only five years after the September 11 attacks, I'm a little amazed that any political content other than flag-waving rah rah rah stuff exists in it. And like history, it's a movie best understood in hindsight and with a close viewing after the fact. When it will scare the absolute snot out of the viewer because of the vast gulf between the ambition of the people who created the story as it really happened and the effect in the real world outside the screen from their best efforts.

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