Review of “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007) R 97min
December 24th, 2007 by Maxim · 1 Comment · 6,546 Views
The plot: Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a congressman from Texas. He’s been known for being a womanizer and alcoholic. In 1979 the policy of US regarding Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was to stay out of the conflict. While the government officially morally supported the Afghans, they were not helping practically because they were afraid that in the time when the Cold War was at it’s peak, it would mean a direct armed conflict between US and USSR. Charlie Wilson was the only politician in Washington who, lead to the cause by the “richest woman of Texas” and a socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), turned to a rouge CIA agent Gust “Gus” Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for help and was able to covertly provide Mujaheddin with weapons including “Stinger” missiles. He was able to ramp up the covert support to the budget of roughly one billion dollars from the budget of 5 million dollars before his intervention. This help [according to the movie] brought the war in Afghanistan to the stalemate and lead to eventual withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan as well as collapse of the entire “Soviet Empire”. Since United States did not follow up with a plan to rebuild Afghanistan after Soviets left, the vacuum of power eventually lead to power being divided between warlords, the raise to power of Taliban and further complications in the Middle East.
The good: This movie is practically a comedy, or at least a political drama with a good sense of humor. Tom Hanks was great, very strong performance. Philip Seymour Hoffman was amazing: such a cool character. I wonder what he was like in real life. There are a lot of parties in this movie and it made me want to have some Whiskey too. All Charlie Wilson’s secretaries and assistants were probably right from the Playboy cover and they seemed to love their job and behaved like they were models at the photo-shoot (”you can teach ‘em to type, but you can’t teach ‘em to grow tits”). In one of his assistants, Bonnie Bach, I recognized Amy Adams who played Giselle in Enchanted. Julia Roberts looked good but I suppose that was the essence of her role: not a particularly memorable or subtle performance. This movie is a really good satiric insight into Washington politics I have not seen since The Distinguished Gentlemen. Great and very entertaining dialogs, especially between Hanks’s and Hoffman’s characters. Hoffman is the star of the movie. Very clever film that shows very serious and even scary subjects with a touch of great humor, satire and sarcasm. Lovely recreation of the life in the 80s. The opening shot with a silhouette of the Mujaheddin fighter praying and then firing the Stinger into the audience reminded me of classic opening sequence of James Bond movies.
The bad: some stereotypes of the Cold War were invoked that felt if not unfair then one-sided. The scene when Wilson was meeting with the president of Pakistan seemed unrealistic and overly comedic setup. It’s also unclear what motivates Julia Roberts’s character to be so interested in Afghanistan, but she did have two Afghan hounds.
I understand the Cold War was pretty tense and the CIA guys are very patriotic and I suppose Washington politicians can call themselves patriots too, but the whole “let’s kill some Russians” talk was a bit off-putting. Also, the premise that shutting down a few hundred helicopters and couple hundred tanks could have made Soviets leave is disputed by many. Now that the war is over everyone wants to capitalize on the Soviet Union falling apart and a lot of people took credit for it (Reagan supposedly bankrupted USSR with the disinformation about space nuclear missiles program, Charlie Wilson bankrupted USSR by giving Mujaheddin weapons to blow up tanks – since before that US was supplying Mujaheddin with WW1-era rifles before that), but some argue that Soviets could stay there forever. They had 140,000 troops there, not 120-130 thousand like the movie says, and in the entire 9 years of war they lost just 11,000 people (3 people per day on average – that’s relatively small number of soldiers for a country of two hundred twenty million people – on an annual basis that’s less per year then Americans are loosing in Iraq – that’s with technology they had in the 80s). Blowing up 333 expensive helicopters is, well, expensive, but they had so much of that stuff they didn’t care much. Russian soldiers to this day wear uniform that was made in 1961 and never had been warn before – that’s the amount of resources there accumulated since the beginning of the Cold War. Many think that if Andropov didn’t die so quickly, Soviet Union may still be around. It was Gorbachev, the Secretary General of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party, who decided to withdraw. The Najibullah government of Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) stayed in power and was successfully fighting Mujahadeen for another 3 years after Soviets left until in now-independent Russia President Yeltsin came to power and cut petroleum supplies to the Communist government of Afghanistan for political reasons – essentially imposing an embargo.
Anyway, this is a very complex subject people are arguing, writing books and making movies about, and I am here just to write a movie review. If you believe in the premise that “Stinger” missile caused the collapse of the “Soviet Empire” then I suppose this movie is very good in this context. Also, USSR did not invade Afghanistan to kill everyone in sight (in reference to “Happy hunting” comment by the Red army helicopter pilot in the movie). They went there mostly because the new Communist government of Afghanistan that came to power after the overthrow of the previous government (at the same time that Islamic revolution happened in Iran) asked for military help. There were many other reasons too. One of them is that USSR had a very special debt to their southern neighbor: along with Germany, Afghanistan was the first country to recognize it as a state (when the whole world refused to recognize the newly formed Soviet Union) and establish diplomatic relations with it in 1924. To name a few other, the end of Arab-Israeli conflict, which, Soviets feared, may have put Egypt in alliance with the West and out of Moscow’s influence, as well as Soviet dissatisfaction with Iraq, which began to buy arms not from Soviet Union, but from United States and some other NATO countries and China in a ramp up before the war with Iran (a.k.a. Persian Gulf War). Germany had provided Iraq with chemical and biological weapons and precursors to the nuclear capabilities.
About 1 million Afghans died in the war. Since we are talking movies and stereotypes here, it’s only fair to mention that in 3 years of US involvement in Vietnam about 5.1 million Vietnamese (1.1 million military and 4 million civilians) died by some estimates.
“The ball you’ve set in motion can keep bouncing even after you’ve lost interest in it.”
“We achieved the victory… and f**cked up the end-game”.
Absolutely most favorite quote:
“Do we even have the strategy in Afghanistan?” – “No, but we are working on it?” – “Who exactly is working on it?” – “Me and two other guys”.
The verdict: an excellent and very clever political satirical comedy, war and killing aside. Nominated for 5 Golden Globes, including Best Picture.
Directed by Mike Nichols. Based on book by George Crile, the late producer of CBS’s 60 Minutes. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Produced by Tom Hanks. Musical score by James Newton Howard.
p.s. Check out interview with Charlie Wilson on NPR.
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1970s | 1980s | Afghanistan | based on book | based on novel | character name in title | CIA | Cold War | congressman | Julia Roberts | movie review | Pakistan | Philip Seymour Hoffman | Political | satire | Tom Hanks