I urge you to read this yes, and then to find a quiet 100 minutes to revel in and savor this remarkable movie-making tour-de-force: history lesson, sociology seminar, education in how we govern or fail to. And if you need Hollywood “eye candy” (or otherwise) to help make the case, critically acclaimed performances from Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman should help.
Years back, in less complicated and less “reality allergic” times, when the Iraq invasion had been exposed at least in large part, as a manipulative charade, the “holiday season” in what may be for some time (possibly forever, though I pray not) a “bygone” New York City, welcomed the cinema opening of a remarkable homage to a remarkable period.
The movie was Charlie Wilson’s War, detailing the bizarre, unpredictable, and almost unbelievable way, the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan was undone, and how that precipitated the unspooling of the Soviet empire. Charlie Wilson, a Congressman from an easily ignored Texas district, with a madcap array of unlikely allies, found the kindling, lit the fire, fanned those flames, and made sure those flames were creative and productive and decisive.
Films showing Afghanistan and Iraq and their Cold War predecessors have understandably tended to be sober, somber even… after all, this is a far from gleeful subject matter on the face of it. JFK beautifully characterized the Cold War as a “long twilight struggle.” We were brought to the brink of annihilation, to the outer extremity of our wits, with persistent dread for millions around the world (who could have imagined a viral strain that kills virtually no one below 65 with pre-existing conditions would do what the Soviet Empire and nuclear war jockeying could not?).
Yet, it was also a grand contest of vision, of ideology, of approaches to engaging the world. It was epic, it was, well, kind of a blast, as some of the commentators who lived through it have wryly conceded – at least in hindsight.
A Hoot, a Holler and a Snort
You almost feel guilty as you romp with the movie, at how much fun you can have being educated at the inhuman massacre of innocents in Afghanistan by the Soviets, who were preparing to destabilize a region and “express” their lust for land and influence across the Middle East. A flaccid and feckless US, seems to dither, unsure how not to provoke a catastrophic “real” war and clueless about how to prosecute a meaningful “proxy” war in its stead.
No one cheers the US legacy in the Middle East today, and this film presages the “blowback” of “screwing up the endgame” as Congressman Wilson bemoans after these events. But let us here focus on the “blow” struck for freedom, for competence, for collaboration, for mobilizing coalitions, for brilliantly marshalling resources, and fully leveraging “odd bedfellows” (often literally!) In the words of Charlie’s tempestuous CIA sidekick,
“…you might as well have fun with it.”
Yes, indeed…why does droll, dour, desiccated bureaucracy, the bane of so much of human history and flopped attempts at progress, have to be our dysfunctional default setting? Aaron Sorkin’s writing captures the lyricism of the undertaking, the gravitas as well as the often-inadvertent comic levity of so called “serious” politicking. This is witty rather than glib. Glibness distorts to evoke a laugh. Wit holds up a mirror to show us the humor lurking in plain sight.
Here with a few cocktails, some high-octane deal-making, an appreciation for human foibles, and the ability to align people by virtue of their common fears if not aspirations, we are shown how the Russians were ultimately deterred and defeated.
A Flawed Heroic Outlier
Charlie was indiscreet enough to show us his demons, while occasionally, where it mattered and counted, “flashing” his angels as well. Representing Texas’s Second Congressional District in the House of Representatives, Charlie is shown as a sly rascal, whose often loose levity can initially camouflage the wise strategist and ardent student of history under that veil.
He was an unapologetic womanizer and in today’s age, his badinage itself would have been grounds for censure or worse. Yet women who worked for him and with him, seemed to understand the respect beneath the demeanor -- this rogue whose lechery seemed a “front” for an underlying sense of gallantry. He reveled in women, and they seemed to relish his company, from daughters of pious constituents to the “long-stemmed babes” his office was famous for cultivating.
Amy Adams plays a wise, conscience-filled aide, who admires and supports Charlie, if not all varietals of his behavior, understanding that he understands how to get things done, and will do so on behalf of things that matter to the world, and not just to him. How extraordinary it would be if a modern inventory of politicians would throw up even a few such specimens!
Charlie seems so much in his element soaking in a Vegas hot tub with a Playboy model and a sleazy television producer (who later try to bring Charlie down both through noxious publicity which he actually laps up, and through a criminal investigation, which fails both because the claims were untrue, and also on jurisdictional grounds). While lapping up the party, scotch perennially in hand, he is watching a broadcast about Afghanistan, and his mind still can flit to ways to counter Soviet aggression while he banters. As someone wrote, Charlie was both “anomaly and paragon.” The dirty little secret is, that virtually all interesting historical leaders are, they are “characters” and they create outsized impact in part by not fitting a recognizable or comfortable mold.
A Strange Dream Team
Able to work with political rivals (oh those were the days!), liberal, libertine, Charlie finds both shared priorities and shared passions with Joanne Herring, Houston socialite, awash in riches and sex appeal, delightfully rendered by Julia Roberts in the movie as a foil for Tom Hank’s exuberant and sage rendering of Charlie. Joanne loves Jesus, is the Honorary Consul General of Pakistan, and highly trusted by military dictator and Pakistani President, Zia-ul-Haq. Her religiosity doesn’t dent her love (literal and metaphorical) of Charlie, and so she too represents a “real” heroine, an epitome of American contradictory virtues: smart, independent, zealous, yet glory seeking, sensual and self-indulgent. But as with admirable yet complicated people, often even her vices seem prioritized for service to higher callings.
The third member of this improvisational team of (as critic A.O. Scott described them) “high-living, hard-partying jihadists” is Gust Avrakotos, mesmerizingly brought to blustery, wise, hard-bitten life by a magisterial performance (which rightly won numerous nominations and awards) by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Gust is a CIA operative whose bosses find his relentlessly pragmatic policy insight vexing and “insane” against the backdrop of the drivel they spout and sputter, and the blue bloods at The Company (the CIA) find him as “coarse” as he finds them cretinous. Greek blood and rust-belt pragmatics make for a heady brew in Gust, plus his essential patriotic and humanitarian zeal to help the Afghanis “kill some Russians.”
Together, with a chess playing weapons specialist, they concocted a remarkable scheme bringing together Israel, Egypt (via an “exotic” belly dancer from the US no less), Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and a compliant Subcommittee Chairman who is “flattered” and “stroked” into exercising his “Christian” conscience. This all essentially happened, even if some of the high jinks may have been further stoked in cinematic presentation for dramatic or comic piquancy.
This is a master class in strategizing, coalition building in the real world (a sadly forgotten art with ruinous consequences for our current world stage), and leveraging the complementarities of “competing” interests, and then following through (or not).
Where It Takes Us
The book on which this movie is based became a publishing sensation, so clearly some powerful chords were struck and played upon.
How this marvelous rogue who sat on subcommittees that put him at the epicenter of being able to help stage and help the US conduct a covert war, and seeing him exercise that leverage with such engagement and adroitness, has you wishing today’s representatives were even “awake” to possibilities.
This yarn educates us, it also shows us how grand undertakings can begin implausibly and can be advanced by those who are committed at times over those who are more powerful or mainstream. And while some have been unnerved in seeing the rollicking evangel of hedonism mingling so effectively with wisdom and purpose, it may be high time we realized our unflinching and often “affected” sobriety of temperament, outlook and behavior can lead to self-idolizing dogmatism, and an unflinching, unrepentant obstinacy against both facts and possibilities.
Gritty, melancholy stoicism, giving way to pompous chest-beating exceptionalism has led us afoul of late, and the current political season seems acutely charmless and ugly to a fault, almost as a demonstration of this dynamic.
Charlie Wilson’s War reminds us of an era where Ronald Reagan as President and Tip O’Neill as Democratic Speaker of the House could loathe some of each other’s ideas and still strike deals for the greater good of the American Republic.
It takes us back to when battles were waged with more easily identifiable “enemies” and where American culture was somewhat more prone to the expression of joy and less obnoxiously sanctimonious. It is a needle that needs some threading… but not abandoning.
People “tune out” of sermonizing hypocrisy, throughout history they always have, and if there is further “history” to be fashioned, they likely will continue to. Jefferson’s Monticello and Churchill’s dinners during World War II were beacons of statesmanship and life affirmation, in concert. Less grandly, with less sophistication, Charlie’s “fetes” with their own passion and a more Texan twang, again showed that sharing pleasure is not incompatible with high purposes and even grand undertakings.
Surely, one of the ways we confront the dehumanizing and soul leeching certainties of totalitarianism is with the verve and energy of our imagination and celebration of our shared humanity. Perhaps as Charlie embodied, such “fun” when welling up from our core, even if partially in flight from some of our inner darkness, is woven into the very fabric of our freedom.