Saturday, 12 January 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War is an account on the US-Saudi resourcing of the Afghan Mujahadeen to repel the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The film's screen-play was written by Aaron Sorkin (of West Wing fame) and led to some brilliant scenes. I loved the inter-play between the characters played by Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (CIA agent, Gust). There's one particularly memorable scene when the two characters first meet where the snappy dialogue and one-liners are played alongside an almost farcical to-ing and fro-ing. I mostly liked it. Hoffman was excellent (as usual). My main problem with the film is that it seems to flick from weighty and serious issues to comedy with little junction in between: the plight of war-affected asylum seekers plays alongside light and fluffy romantic dialogue and in my opinion isn't in particularly good taste.

Here's what I think Charlie Wilson's War particularly highlights:

The nature of war. "Let's go kill Russians" is a refrain that comes up several times in the film, to the extent that some critics have laid into the film for glorifying warfare and blowing up communists. I guess there's perhaps some truth in that claim. However, I wonder if that's the complete opposite of what the film is seeking to portray. It's true that as viewers we peek in on the American celebrations of the Russians being blow out of the sky. But the overwhelming thing that struck me was the film's realistic formula that, in the 20th Century onward, war = killing. There's one scene where a Russian fighter himself is chatting away to his co-pilot about issues of romance whilst simultaneous bombing an Afghan town. The same cold-heartedness is portrayed by those who attack the Russians. A sombre reminder that success in war is linked to ending the lives of others.

Religion. Religion is a powerful film that runs all the way through the film, and is viewed highly critically. There's the evident hypocrisy of the American Christians, particularly in the character played by Julia Roberts, who seems prepared to do almost anything to achieve her ends. She also openly tells of how speaking of God and putting problems in religious terms is how to make anything happen. "We need God on our side," she tells at one point.

Viewers can't also help to see the ugly face of Islam being criticised as well. There's hints of this theme in a meeting between an Egyptian delegation and an Israeli arms dealer. Additionally, the film finishes with a juxtaposition of joy (given the Soviet withdrawal of Afghanistan) and the knowledge that the resourcing of the Afghans ultimately paved the way for the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and fundamentalism Islam. As one critic put it, "The ghost of September 11 is everywhere present." Hoffman's character warns that, without continuing US support in Afghanistan, the Afghans might regard Allah as their saviours, and not the US.

Ultimately, then, religion is seen as an incredibly powerful form of social engagement, with the potential to be used very manipulatively and for incredibly dangerous ends (not exactly an uncommon theme in popular culture post-September 11!).

Culpability. The other massive theme that is in the film is the question of whether US intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s was right at all (and inevitably questions current and future US intervention). On the positive side, the film does show the US political machine pulling itself together (at times) for what's perceived to be good. As the strapline to the film says, alluding to the way political business is represented throughout, 'A stiff drink. A little mascara. A lot of nerve. Who said they couldn't bring down the Soviet Empire?'

But Charlie Wilson's War closes with a candid acknowledgement that massive mistakes were made. What would the world political climate look like today had the US not intervened? Would the Cold War still be raging? Would there have never been a 9/11? A chilling reminder that, for those with power, both ideas and decisions have consequences.


Daniel Hames said...

My friends and I had a big discussion over whether this was anti-American or pro-Aemrican. Opinion was very divided!

What do you reckon?

I think it was highly critical of American foreign policy and the Bush administration(s), but probably uphelpd 'American' values generally.

peterdray said...

Yes we had a similar discussion. The incredibly patriotic music that played as the Americans and Afghans took down the Soviets was either in incredibly bad taste or needed to be taken with a pinch of salt. I wonder if that was supposed to make us question the Bush administration.

As I said in my post, I think it spoke of the potential good for US politics but ultimately placed it alongside a default position of recent failure.