Or...How a film is improved immeasurably when you're sure of what you're trying to do...
Charlie Wilson's War is almost one of the Great American Satires. Unfortunately the "almost" is what marks it out, a missed opportunity. Mike Nichols' dramatisation of George Crille's book "My Enemy's Enemy" works as a prequel to the all too real events taking place in Afghanistan since the mid-90's. Telling the story of Charlie Wilson, State Senator for Texas, who through his position on the Defense Appropriation Committee, lavished US funding to the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan during the Soviet Invasion after 1980. It details how charming, freewheeling good old boy Wilson begs borrows and steals his way into the heart of the US Security family bringing his banker, Julia Roberts' Joanne Herring along for the ride. Herring is portrayed as the dark presence at the heart of the film and one that neither Sorkin nor Nichols seem to know what to do with it- they paint her as a cold, calculating evangelical. I was immediately struck by the potential for Herring and Wilson's partnership as a metaphor for the birth of Bush II who seems effectively to be an amalgam of Herring's red-knuckled Evangelical Christanity (subtext: evil) and Wilson's amiable, buffoonish but shrewd political horse-trading (subtext: good). This element in the film seems to have sailed past Sorkin and particularly Nichols' in terms of presenting this as the central relationship at the heart of the film, Roberts must also take the blame for her performance which completely fails to inhabit the role of Herring .
It prefers instead to focus on the buddy-buddy relationship between Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) and Wilson who both perform the roles handed to them with gusto (Particularly Hoffmann, a vicious pre-911 throwback who just wants to "kill Russians") but you get the feeling that this is more of a vehicle for Sorkin's strong suit of snappy retrosexual dialogue and some great interplay between the two leads. Which is not, in itself, an entirely bad thing. The film is quite entertaining but the longer things go on the more my shoulders sagged in resignation as it hurtled onwards towards the events we all know so well. The problem lies largely in Sorkins' quaint but irritating faith in the good inherent in the American Project. The movie seems to be saying "wouldn't it have been great if only we'd invested and helped the Afghans get back on their feet none of the events which followed would ever have happened!" It sounds laughable but it's exactly what happens. The film has a tacked on remorsefest with a mournful Wilson lamenting the missed oportunities with Gust in the closing frames. Like any of this really matters.
Again, Nichols almost hits the button with an extraordinary sequence of news footage of Afghan Mujahadeen shooting down Russian fighters with surface to air missiles that would have bookended the movie perfectly. Had they chosen to end with this sequence, bookended with the congratulations scenes, where Wilson is given the unprecedented honour of being welcomed as an "Honoured Colleague" in the CIA's Near East Division, we would have been left with a sour irony which fits the noxious fallout to the entire Regan-era covert ops fad which opened the doors for the neo-cons. Sorkin and co seem to be at pains to distance themselves from any explicit comment on this matter which is depressing, principally because it's fertile ground. The covert funding of private wars by the US in the Cold War period was the primary catalysing agent in many contemporary conflicts- the arms proliferated in that period are still being used but more damaging are the relationships established- either between the CIA and its myriad sponsored covert militas and the Yeltsin period outsourcing of former KGB operatives to the highest bidder. This decoupling of military force from the body politic has had serious implications in the post-cold war world. Rather than explore how this came about Sorkin is content to have us snicker at the impropriety of forthright Herring saying "Zia did not kill Bhutto" at a Pakistani fundraiser. Sounds familiar when played alongside George W Bush's repeated denials of US torture even as the the architecture of rendition was established practice in US intelligence and counter-terrorism.
The entire problem here is that Sorkin and Nichols don't know what they want to say. The inherent flaw in the film is that both director nor writer lack the courage to explicitly say "we did this"- preferring to say "we screwed it up". Firstly that's not good enough, secondly it's just not that simple. I'm probably being a little too earnest about this given that this is a star studded political adventure story but the movie markets itself as a satire. But the entire film is undermined by the suspicion that no-one knew what they were trying to say about this. It would almost have been better if they'd made a "Red State" movie with an unapologetic gloss given to the whole affair and let people make up their own minds but Sorkin can't help but try to do some tidying up at the end with his patented misty eyed hand-wringing. There is far more interesting material in Crille's book which details how a small group of people, many of whom were unelected, funded and pursued a military strategy which has repercussions for US foreign policy today. If Nichols and Sorkin had the courage to satirise the birth of Neoconservative practice (rather than the ideology which was being forged simultaneously by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al), rather than Good Old Charlie's proclivity for first-class, bourbon and dames, they could have made this film a whole lot more important than a knockabout comedy drama about a self-funded elite within American Government waging war without Congress' approval.
Yeah, party on Clom.
Nothing draws in the crowds like Congress' approval.