Tuesday 15 January 2008

Re-inventing Charlie Wilson's War

I recently saw "Charlie Wilson's War", the new film starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, which tells the story of a genial, hard-drinking Texas Congressman who, with the help of a maverick CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), almost single-handedly created the CIA's covert war against the Russians in Afghanistan.

Prompted by right-wing socialite Joanne Herring (Roberts), Wilson visits Pakistan's military dictator General Zia and its refugee camps filled with desperate Afghans who have escaped the brutality of the Soviet army. He then turns his considerable charm and influence in Congress (as a member of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee) to funnel millions of dollars to supply themujaheddin with the weapons to shoot down Russian helicopters and planes.

Although the film is based on a true story, writer Aaron Sorkin (of "The West Wing") has made Charlie Wilson's escapades into an often very funny script, with Hoffman brilliant as always, but one that is fundamentally right-wing and that for me left a really bad taste in the mouth. The film depicts the end of the Cold War under Reagan as a period of nostalgic certainty, when America knew who its enemies were and how they could be defeated, when 'fighting communism' mattered far more than the consequences of US foreign policy. Making Wilson a good-time, lovable character glosses over his active support for the brutal Somoza government in Nicaragua and subsequent support for CIA covert efforts to undermine the Sandinistas. The film, whilst rightly highlighting the atrocities of the Soviet occupation army (mirrored twenty years later by the US in Iraq - the inevitable fate it seems of all occupiers), appears to positively relish the idea of 'killing Russians', even thought the majority were miserable teenage conscripts. Sorkin also adopts the historically inaccurate view that the war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the rise of nationalism and of political liberalisation under glasnost, coupled with the crippling economic cost of the arms race, were significantly more important factors.

And not until the end, in almost an oblique afterthought, does the film acknowledge the impact of placing a billion dollars worth of arms in the hands of the mujaheddin. Even on this point, the film seems confused - the immediate result wasn't the Taliban, but five years of civil war, during which the main ally of the US in the 2001 invasion, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, destroyed much of the city of Kabul.

The commentator Toby Young, whom I have long thought of as fundamentally clueless, has written that "one of the main reasons we (speak for yourself Toby) can now look back on the Cold War era as the Good Old Days is because the West came out on top. Waging a covert military operation - and winning it - seems infinitely preferable to waging an actual war and losing it." Infinitely preferable perhaps to someone with no apparent moral compass.

In a less confused time in the US, a liberal writer like Sorkin would have potrayed Charlie Wilson as a right-wing arms financier and potential war criminal. Instead we get warm-hearted Tom Hanks playing 'Good Time Charlie", a basically honest party animal that we are supposed to sympathise with.

So here's a prediction - in 2019, expect a Hollywood film about the exploits of a confused but fundamentally noble George W Bush.

Perhaps Tom Hanks will be free for that film too.

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