Friday, December 28, 2007

Rick Stein's War

If there is such a thing as a just war, Charlie Wilson may have been correct in identifying the attempts by the mujahedeen against the invading Soviets in their last hurrah in the 1980s as such a beast.

At least that's what I come away with from watching the film "Charlie Wilson's War," a highly entertaining and engaging look at an unlikely hero, a publicly obscure Texas Congressman who, nonetheless, was owed a lot of "chits" by his colleagues since (the film claims) he never sought pork barrel projects for his own district and could bank his political capital instead.

There are farfetched elements to the film which make it even more entertaining than it probably was in reality, but this boozin' cruisin' womanizin' Texan was in the right place at the right time to tilt American policy towards active covert support of the mujahedeen through back channels involving the unlikely cooperation of Israelis, Pakistanis, Egyptians and Saudis. And that support tipped the balance of the 1980s Afghani war to become a Soviet Vietnam from which the Russians retreated, tail-between-their-legs (and, in the view of many, the ultimate downfall of the Soviet Union).

Of course, casting Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson makes him a lovable's in the opening moments, as he's cavorting naked in a hot tub with Las Vegas beauties that director Mike Nichols seals his party-boy image, and then directs his (and our) attention to a Dan Rather-in-the-field report on the mujahedeen that captivates Wilson and (we are expected to believe) begins his conversion to the cause that will dominate his future time in office. Yes, a little suspension of disbelief is required, but after all, it may be "based on a true story" as the opening credits inform us, but it's also Hollywood.

No better example of that is the casting of Julia Roberts as a friend of Charlie's, a superrich former beauty queen, turned born again Christian and now rabble-rousing to do something about Afghanistan. It strains credulity to see Roberts in that role after some of her working class roles, but even rich, educated Texans, perhaps, should not be expected to possess a savoir faire that belies their true nature regardless of economic status. After all, we learned that thirty years ago during the heyday of "Dallas," didn't we?

Stealing the show (as usual) is the metamorphic Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a scorned CIA operative who becomes the key functionary of Charlie Wilson's war. He borders on the cartoonish--but then again so do the other lead characters--yet he has a couple of really astoundingly funny scenes worth the price of admission alone.

Nichols is a seasoned (read: slick) director who peppers the film with remarkable details, like when Wilson's aide-de-camp, a beautiful young woman, is found sitting forlornly at the bottom of the stairs with mistress Roberts' dogs, drinking the martini Roberts directed her to obtain, while Wilson & Roberts are upstairs, er, mixing their own martini.

Ultimately, we are instructed to take from the film the lesson that our abandonment of Afghanistan after the departure of the Soviets led to 9/11 and our belated, half-hearted return there afterwards. That's a sobering thought in a film that includes a few heartrending moments that build our sympathies for the Afghani people, but what the viewer is left with is an indelible portrait of an unremarkable man who, for all his amusing personality flaws, wound up playing a critical role in this moment in history, and just about persuades us that not only can war be just--it can be a helluva lot of fun, too!

Until next time...


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