[New guest Blogger Chadd Nevett reviews Charlie Wilson's War. My plan to watch movies over the break has not been working out, so I am, as usual, behind, and have not seen this yet.]
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but all of the Golden Globe nominations for Charlie Wilson’s War are in the “comedy or musical” categories, while every other description of the film calls it a “drama.” The funny thing is, the tone of the movie isn’t all that different from anything else Aaron Sorkin has written; there are funny moments, serious moments and everything in between. I guess without the usual “hour means drama,” “half-hour means comedy” rules of TV, people don’t know what to make of Sorkin’s writing.
Although, calling Charlie Wilson’s War a comedy isn’t that far off as the first act is almost exclusively played for laughs. Tom Hanks is Charlie Wilson, a congressman from Texas who likes whiskey and women and, well, doesn’t really do much else. He comes across as the happy idiot who got into politics, because it seemed like the smart thing to do at the time. He’s surrounded himself with young, beautiful women assistants because, “You can teach ‘em to type, but you can’t teach ‘em to grow tits.” Hell, one of the first times we see Wilson, he’s naked in a hot tub with two strippers, a Playboy cover girl and a wannabe TV producer (whose TV idea of “Dallas but set in Washington” is my favourite inside joke of the movie).
If you didn’t know better, you would think that you were watching a light-hearted political comedy ala Dick. Soon, however, Wilson is sucked into the war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, but, even then, the issue is mostly fodder for comedy. Wilson’s meeting with the president of Pakistan and two advisers is more a classic comedy routine than the sharp political wit we’ve come to expect from The West Wing.
The comedy, though, only sets the viewer and Wilson himself up for a harsher fall when faced with the Afghani refugees in Pakistan who have fled from the Soviets. There’s a little girl with no arms because she picked up what looked like a toy and it blew up in her hands. There’s a woman who has to fight off two young men for rice. It’s a scene of human suffering that is not easily forgotten made all the more powerful by the laughs that preceded it.
As a result of what he sees in Pakistan, Wilson becomes deeply committed to providing the Afghanis with the means to fight the Soviets, which means working with CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, played to perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and wealthy, sometimes lover of Wilson, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts does a serviceable job here, but nothing spectacular).
The film isn’t just about the fight between the Afghanis and the Soviets, but is also a timely reminder of the current conflict in Afghanistan and the United States’ role in creating the very enemy they fight now. In that way, the film is bittersweet as we know that arming the Afghan people was crucial in ending the Cold War, but also that a little more than a decade later, the same fight would repeat itself except with the US and its allies in the place of the USSR.
Not only that, but the interest of the American people and politicians will be about the same. Throughout the film, no one cares about what’s going on in Afghanistan and not much else has changed. The most resonant line of the film (and forgive me if I don’t get it exactly right) comes near the end when Wilson is trying to get funding to rebuild Afghanistan and a congressman mentions that he was with the president in the Roosevelt Room the other day and the president said, “Afghanistan—is that still going on?”
Charlie Wilson’s War is a very funny, very entertaining movie, but it is also very timely and haunting. Sorkin and Nichols suck you in with laughs only to hit you hard with the harsh reality of the plight of the Afghan people, and remind you that 20 years later, not much has changed.