A Belated Review of Charlie Wilson’s War
One of the many things I wanted to write about this past semester (but didn’t get the chance, because I studied) is the recent film Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). While this film recounts the “true story” of Texas congressional representative Charlie Wilson and his efforts to spearhead a covert attack against Russia in the twilight of the Cold War, the unmistakable context here is, of course, the United States’ current political situation and its own involvement with Afghanistan in the War on Terror.
Charlie Wilson’s War depicts Rep. Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) as a promiscuous and carousing politician who visits Afghanistan, at the urging of one of his lady friends and political contacts, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts). Upon arriving in Afghanistan, Wilson and his staff experience for themselves the destruction and suffering that has befallen that country, largely because of its feeble efforts to ward off the great Red giant. Wilson immediately returns to Washington, uses his political clout and connections to finance more sophisticated weaponry for the Afghanis, and ultimately orchestrates an attack against the Soviets.
The problem with this film is that its trajectory resembles a feel-good sports movie, all the while eliding the political and ideological fallacies of the Cold War itself. Afghanistan is the ultimate underdog, the Rocky Balboa nation, that fights an ill-fated war against the Soviets with nobility and raw determination. And, with the help of God, forces of “good,” and the United States , they are able to dismantle the great Red machine and (as the film claims) effectively end the Cold War.
When Charlie Wilson’s War attempts to address the obvious problem here–the fact that the United States exploited the Afghanis and helped them to fight in a politically advantageous way (i.e. with secret US backing)–it cannot do so without being extremely tortured. According to a review in The Guardian, this film is “another deeply muddled, fence-sitting, obtuse Hollywood picture about American politics, excruciatingly unsure whether to crack wise satirically, or go into a glassy-eyed patriotic celebration.” The rags-to-riches motif is so heavy handed, it’s hard to tell if Charlie Wilson’s War intends to be a critique of Cold War ideology, a scathing dismissal of our current war-mongering political landscape, a comedic parody of the haphazard quality of late Cold War foreign policy (thus a veiled commentary on the foreign policy of our own administration), or simply a misled revision of the US’s recent historical past.
We see this ambivalence most clearly in the film’s coda, a quotation from Charlie Wilson that reflects on the covert assistance given to Afghanistan: “we [screwed] up the endgame.” Herein lies the major problem with this film. Ultimately, we cannot decide whether we are to understand the United States’ decision to follow through in Afghanistan, presumably taking the time to “install” a democratic society, provide education, give humanitarian aide, etc., as an ethical failure or as a political one. The film would seem to suggest that the “blowback” which now occupies our own military attention is part and parcel of prior US ineptitude.
It’s just not that simple, nor should the commentary (if any is going on here) take such a conflicted approach.