Sunday, January 6, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

Last night I toasted the end of my vacation with a visit to the movies. I saw Charlie Wilson's War, a film written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and directed by Mike Nichols (Primary Colors), and based on the career of a Texas Congressman who liked whisky, women, and fighting Communism. According to the film, Rep. Wilson masterminded a covert war that played a major part in bringing down the Soviet Union.

And how did one congressman do this? By bringing together such unlikely allies as Israel, Syria, Egypt, and Pakistan; and using his unique political connections (across party lines) to milk gigantic amounts of money out of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee; by working with maverick CIA agents; by using a high-profile ethics investigation against himself to distract attention from what he was doing; and, ultimately, by arming the resistance fighters in Afghanistan until that staggeringly undeveloped country handed the Soviet Empire its first military defeat.

It's a clever movie. Tom Hanks is simultaneously repulsive and charming as Congressman Wilson, an elusive combination. His chief spook is played with aggressive bluntness by Philip Seymour Hoffmann. Amy Adams is sweetly tough as Wilson's chief of staff, Ned Beatty is adorable as a scatterbrained senior congressman, and Julia Roberts opens up a vast new range of roles for herself as the iron-willed financial contibutor who gives Wilson his first push into the cause of Afghanistan. The dialogue is crisp, the laugh-lines are harp-string taut, and something about the montage showing Afghans shooting down Soviet tanks, planes, and helicopters made the hair stand up on the back of my neck - very possibly the soundtrack, which combined a hip-hop beat with the chorus "And He shall purify" from Handel's Messiah.

This movie probably hit some tender spots in the audience, for three reasons. The first is an accident of history. When, in introducing then-President of Pakistan Zia, Julia Roberts blurts out: "He did not kill Bhutto," the audience gasped. Most of the audience missed the reference to the late Benazir Bhutto's father, and were shocked to hear words so reminiscent of a tragedy that happened after the movie was released. The second is the role played by current presidential hopeful Rudy Guiliani as the special prosecutor who went to great lengths to nail Wilson on charges of cocaine possession.

The tenderest historical soft-spot, however, is the low-key ending of the movie, summed up in an end-title quoting Charlie Wilson himself: "We f---ed up the endgame." And thereby hangs the tragedy that continues to play out in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan. By covertly arming the Afghan resistance fighters against the U.S.S.R., then leaving them to pick up the pieces of their shattered country without our help, we created conditions that led, in part, to the Islamic attack on our country in September 2001.

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