The fall of Rome played out in Southfork

Charlie Wilson’s War, a borderline slapstick comedy about the CIA’s arming of the Mujahideen, reveals more about America than the pious new films on Iraq do.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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If you like your war movies worthy, pious and starring Susan Sarandon as the teary-eyed mom of a 22-year-old boy sent to his death by the Bastard Bush, then you should probably avoid Charlie Wilson’s War. There’s no simplistic antiwar message here, or even a simpleton antiwar message of the sort spouted by Sean Penn or Tim Robbins. Instead, this is a tightly-scripted, borderline slapstick comedy about America’s secretive arming of the Mujahideen during the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s. And guess what? It reveals far more about contemporary America and what lies behind its interventionist zeal than all of those achingly guilt-ridden films about lions, lambs and dead American soldiers put together.

Scripted by the masterful Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), Charlie Wilson’s War tells how, in the 1980s, a drunken, boob-obsessed Congressman teamed up with a half-slut, half-fundamentalist Christian millionairess from Texas to convince the CIA to pump a billion dollars into arming the Holy Warriors. It’s a true story. Tom Hanks is Charlie Wilson, the Democratic Congressmen who drinks whiskey at 10 in the morning and surrounds himself with beautiful secretaries who wear tight-fitting sweaters. He calls them ‘Charlie’s Angels’. His office looks like something out of Benny Hill. When a paunchy, Stetson-wearing Christian asks him why he employs so many buxom coquettes, Charlie responds: ‘Well, you can teach ‘em to type, but you can’t teach ‘em to grow tits.’

When we first meet Charlie, he is naked in a Jacuzzi with a plump businessman, a Playboy model who fantastically believes she will land the lead role in a new political soap opera (‘it’s like Dallas but set in DC’, she squeals), and two strippers whose silicone-enhanced breasts float on top of the water like buoys. Charlie is distracted from this cocaine-fuelled mini-orgy by the sight of Dan Rather on a TV in the corner of the bar. Rather is reporting from Afghanistan (‘Is that India?’ asks the Playboy model), telling viewers in his pompous voice that the beleaguered people desperately need weapons and the support of America if they are to win their war against the Soviets. It’s a classic scene: the debauched politician, naked, drunk and drooling, having his conscience pricked by a moralistic journalist on the box; an increasingly familiar story today, in our age of the journalism of attachment. Charlie sees an opportunity to Do Something, to make an impact for once in his drink-sodden life.

He gets together with Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), the sixth wealthiest woman in Texas and a rabid anti-communist to boot. Roberts is a revelation. For too long she’s been playing tarts with hearts (Pretty Woman) or Women Who Make Important Impacts on Other Women’s Lives (Mona Lisa Smile, Erin Brockovich, Steel Magnoliaszzzz). Now she finally gets to explore the Mae West side to her character. Joanne is a God-fearin’ commie-hater who holds benefit dinners for the Mujahideen in her sprawling, palatial home; she wears glitzy ballgowns, sports a helmet of peroxide blonde hair and fucks Charlie seemingly as part of her attempt to convince him to use his power to send cash and guns to the Holy Warriors. The scene in which she uses a safety pin to separate her heavily-mascaraed eyelashes while giving Charlie a post-coital bollocking about politics will leave male viewers not knowing whether to shield their eyes or their balls. A supremely wealthy woman who mixes sex, politics and dry martinis helping to raise money for the archaic, seriously hung-up Mujahideen? Yes, Americans can do irony.

Once Charlie and Joanne start raising cash (beginning with $5million and eventually reaching $1billion), they convince CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to funnel it through various dodgy channels so that it ends up as weapons in the hands of the Mujahideen. Then they sit back and with naked glee watch as the Holy Warriors down Russian helicopters, dent Russian morale and eventually send the Russians packing. Somewhat delusionally, Charlie and Joanne congratulate themselves for having brought about the end of the Cold War, their mutual backslapping only interrupted by Gust’s warning at the end of the war that these Mujahideen fellas are not the nicest kids on the block, and now they are armed to the teeth and well-versed in urban warfare, bomb-making and the politics of good-and-evil. You can almost feel the World Trade Center trembling in the background.

The film has been criticised by some for extracting laughs from the deadly serious geopolitical cock-up that was America’s arming of the Mujahideen. Sorkin doesn’t deliver ‘a real sense of the story’s geopolitical scope’, says one reviewer (1). True, but then this is a 90-minute comedy about weird American figures arming even weirder Afghan warriors and not a turgid documentary. Under the headline ‘Charlie Wilson’s flaw’, a British foreign correspondent complains: ‘The complex tragedy that enveloped Afghanistan, unravelled the Soviet Union and strengthened extremists throughout the Muslim world is almost entirely off-screen.’ (2) Others have accused Sorkin and director Mike Nichols of making light of America’s screw-ups in the Middle East and Central Asia at a time when she is getting bogged down there all over again (3).

I think Charlie Wilson’s War is the most intelligent war movie to have come out of Hollywood post-9/11. It’s certainly the most watchable. It is imbued with that powerful sense of indirection, bordering on decadence, that gripped America post-Vietnam. It’s like the fall of Rome played out in Southfork. This was the era of the ‘Second Cold War’, when, after the existential nightmare that was Vietnam, America limited its interventions around the world to funding and arming friendly forces (‘our bastards’) who were fighting against Soviet-aligned forces (‘their bastards’). If the anti-communist cause gave meaning to American life and politics in the 1950s and 60s, by the 1970s and 80s it had become less convincing, certainly less substantial, and Reagan was reduced to acting out a cartoon-style stand-off with the Evil Empire.

The ostentatiously coiffured characters in Charlie Wilson’s War are products of this shallow, defensive Second Cold War. Rather than seeking to impose any coherent, Christian or oil-hungry American way of life on the world – the Hollywood-fashionable view of the Reagan administration and the Bush administrations that followed it – they are self-doubting, self-destructive individuals who cynically latch on to the Afghan-Soviet war as an opportunity to etch a scar on the face of history. The film shows the extraordinary lengths that Wilson and Co. went to in order to ensure that the Muj’s weapons would not be traceable back to America. This was a US intervention that dared not speak its name. Charlie and Joanne, and – of course – the CIA, intervene in Afghanistan, not with a mission, but in search of one; not to deliver American values, but to try to find them somewhere in the rubble of bombed-out Afghanistan and in the battles of someone else’s war. The misguided venture in Afghanistan at the tail-end of the Cold War pre-empted Clinton’s and Bush’s wars in search of purpose in the 1990s and today.

This is a war movie with a difference. Where the execrable Lions for Lambs was largely a vehicle for Robert Redford and Tom Cruise to register their distaste for the war in Iraq, and Rendition sacrificed pace, plot and good acting to tell the tale of an evil CIA woman (Meryl Streep, effectively resurrecting her bitchy role from The Devil Wears Prada) and an innocent Egyptian terror suspect, Charlie Wilson’s War remembers to include a storyline and character development. And because its overarching aim is not to advertise its stars’ and producers’ narcissistic antiwar credentials, but rather to give us a story, encounters, sex, politics, it manages to paint a truer picture of America’s relationship with the Middle East than the black-and-white, conspiracy-driven drivel offered by the likes of George Clooney (Syriana) and Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11).

If you like simplistic morality tales in which American administrations conquer the world in order to plunder its oil, and where the only redeemable characters are those brave Hollywood souls willing to make films about it, then go see the new Susan Sarandon vehicle In the Valley of Elah. If you prefer films that make you think and laugh, and in which Julia Roberts looks better in a bikini than she did 20 years ago in Pretty Woman, check out Charlie Wilson.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) Film review: Charlie Wilson’s War, Charleston City Paper, 2 January 2008

(2) Charlie Wilson’s flaw, Comment Is Free, 14 January 2008

(3) Film review: Charlie Wilson’s War, Charleston City Paper, 2 January 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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