Entertainment

'Charlie Wilson's War'

Nichols and Sorkin find a funny Bin Laden back story.

By Steve Burgess 21 Dec 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee when he's not traveling and writing about that. . . which he's about to do in January.

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Roberts, Hanks: Damn Russkies!

Charlie Wilson's War is a nifty little Christmas present, a genre-bending political farce about some serious recent history. Director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin purport to tell the true story of how a minor Texas congressman helped destroy the Soviet Union. That may stretch credulity a little. But as an irreverent Washington yarn with a barbed-wire moral, Charlie Wilson's War certainly makes for a different sort of holiday entertainment.

Based on a book by John Grimes, Charlie Wilson's War stars Tom Hanks as the titular Texan, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a CIA man no one likes, and Julia Roberts as a wealthy right-wing activist whose strict Christian beliefs don't have much apparent effect on her sexual habits.

Wilson is the original good-time Charlie, sharing the opening scene and a Vegas hot tub with a bevy of strippers, an aspiring actress, and slime bag dressed in the latest 1980 slime gear (this being the second movie of the year, after No Country For Old Men, to kick off in that formerly forgettable year). Meanwhile Dan Rather is on the bar TV wearing Afghan tribal gear and hanging with the mujahedin as they battle occupying Soviet troops. Unlike the other tub occupants, Wilson is actually interested. Small, sleazy fish that he is, Wilson is on the Defense Appropriations Committee.

Not the typing type

The movie has a grand time painting Wilson as a standard-issue Washington whore, a man who wants to be appointed to the board of the Kennedy Center so he can get show tickets. Wilson is the kind of guy who can and does summon his entire office staff by yelling "Jailbait!" When asked why all the office girls are so young and buxom, the receptionist (Wynn Everett) explains, "Charlie has a saying: you can teach 'em to type, but you can't teach 'em to grow tits." (This statement may be intended to place us in the proper historical context, before the spread of political correctness and the mainstreaming of cosmetic surgery).

But soft -- Charlie has principles after all. This point is made by showing the congressman standing up to a local yokel who wants to keep a nativity scene in front of a Texas firehall. The ACLU wants it moved. Good 'ol boy Charlie, the ethically dubious Texas congressman, sides with the ACLU, thus proving himself a principled man. This happens only in Aaron Sorkin's Texas. If it ever happened in the actual Texas, I will eat a bale of dirty manger hay.

Wilson's interest in the mujahedin is stoked by his Texan friend Joanne Herring (Roberts), a super-rich, super-Christian using her fortune to do God's anti-Communist work. That she has no compunctions about encouraging Charlie's interest via her apparent sexual prowess is not a contradiction the movie really explores. It makes Herring a rather vague figure, one who seems to have been created by the same God who created The West Wing. With God-like -- better yet, screenwriter-like -- prescience, Herring/Roberts tells Wilson that she intends to use those plucky Afghan warriors to cripple the Soviet Union and end the Cold War. She probably goes on to predict the eventual rise of Justin Timberlake, but I'm guessing they edited that out.

American history for dummies

Pretty soon Wilson is fighting a couple of wars: one to gain funding and arms for the mujahedin, and one to escape allegations that he's been seen with cocaine and strippers. If not for the opening scene, we'd be shocked.

In the movie's most amusing bit, CIA spy Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman) arrives at Wilson's office to brief him on Afghanistan, then must battle for face time with the Jailbait team, plotting strategy re: the strippers-and-coke scandal.

Greased wheels are soon in motion and the brave freedom fighters of Afghanistan are on the way to acquiring weapons they never knew existed. The movie simplifies the conflict to an almost Stallone-like degree. In this version of events everything is going just peachy for the happy Soviet baby-killers until the first boxes of Charlie's weapons arrive. Then the Russkies plummet from the skies like cartoon bugs in a Raid commercial and bingo, the Soviets are going home. Thanks, Charlie! (And as for the weapons funding-and-funneling, didn't a certain President Reagan play some role?)

More over-simplification comes with the implication that America's subsequent failure to fund Afghan schools led to all the trouble that followed. Unlikely that the turbulent politics of Afghanistan could ever have been tamed so easily.

The SNAFU genre

Nonetheless Charlie Wilson's War makes for a highly entertaining tale. It falls into a narrow category with David Russell's 1999 classic Three Kings -- comedy/dramas about American foreign policy in the Middle East. No doubt this will continue to be a rich vein.

An implied presence, never named, hangs over the film. CIA man Avrakotos comes closest to invoking it when he tells Wilson a tale of an old Zen monk who greets every development, good and bad, with a cryptic, "We'll see." Long after Charlie's war was over America would indeed see the unintended results of their mujahedin support -- the entire movie can be viewed as the back-story of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.

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