Saturday, February 09, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

When I first saw this title I wondered if this was some Dad's Army spin-off film. But I was confusing Arthur Wilson, the suave, diffident Home Guard Sergeant for Charlie Wilson the Texas Congressman I've never heard of.

Film is a straightforward telling of the story of how womanizing, hard drinking, happy-go-lucky and not particularly important Congressman, Charlie Wilson, almost single handedly boosted the CIA budget for covert war in Afghanistan from $5 million per year to over $500 million a year ($630 million per year according to Wikipedia) and hence brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The eponymous war (I've never heard anyone actually say that word) refers to both the war Charlie Wilson fought in Washington DC to get funding for Operation Cyclone and also to the proxy US-Soviet war that the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89) evolved into due to operation Cyclone.

Tom Hanks plays Charlie Wilson as an all-american politician, charming, pleasure seeking, naïve on the surface yet smart enough to smell trouble before it happens and to trade his vote on issues that are not important to himself and his constituents for support for the issues he is keen on. The ultimately important issue is killing Russians.

This is not an action movie.

The war in Afghanistan is presented as linking scenes between the main action in Washington. There are shaky and grainy anonymous Afghans or Soviets firing out of shot. There are reconstructions of Soviet attacks on Afghan villages and later Afghans downing Soviet planes and helicopters in slow motion. There are visits to (less than authentic) refugee camps by some of the characters. But all of this seems to be interludes to punctuate the story.

This is not a romantic movie.

There are plenty of pretty women in the supporting cast led by the queen of pretty women, Julia Roberts, but there is no love match or sex. Just plenty of tight skirts and cleavage leading the eye from one scene to the next and Julia Roberts in a bikini that matches her flowerbeds as background to a phone call -- all eye candy.

This is a political movie.

So it is mostly talk-talk. The visuals are there to provide mes-en scene and keep you interested. The film doesn't try to drive home any political points directly but presents us with a bunch of explicit and implicit contrasts and lets us make our own mind up. I expect that this will tend to re-enforce our existing beliefs rather than change our minds about anything.

For instance the Soviets are shown as evil killers who's main war aim is to kill Afghan civilians. There is an implicit contrast with 2008 where the main killer of Afghan civilians is the US military. If you are a believer in the evilness of communism and the implicit goodness of America then you will be happy that the difference is because the evil Taliban are hiding behind the civilians who are killed by accident and that most of the "civilian" dead are really Taliban anyway. If you are less partisan you will see that the USSR was supporting a regime in Kabul and fighting an asymmetric war against an insurgency funded by enemies of the Soviets with the consequent civilian casualties and today the USA is supporting a regime in Kabul and fighting an asymmetric war against an insurgency funded by enemies of America with the consequent civilian casualties.

If you are too young to remember the politics of the 1980s and are interested in an straightforward American view of that time then go and see the movie. Tom Hanks is at the top of his game. The humour is understated, the politics are un-preachy and everyone is honourable -- pity about the battle scenes.

Ian's rating 3/5

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