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Mike Nichols Blogathon-Charlie Wilson’s War

December 15, 2014

The real life Charlie Wilson

Charles Nesbitt “Charlie” Wilson (June 1, 1933 – February 10, 2010) was a United States naval officer and former 12-term Democratic United States Representative from Texas’s 2nd congressional district.  Wilson is best known for leading Congress into supporting Operation Cyclone, the largest-ever Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covert operation which, under the Carter and Reagan administration, supplied military equipment including anti-aircraft weapons such as Stinger antiaircraft missiles and paramilitary officers from their Special Activities Division to the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. – From Wikipedia.

(Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes are discussed in this post, readers please note).

In the 80’s, George Crile III, the CBS journalist, began to uncover details of Operation Cyclone,  while researching and reporting on the war in Afghanistan.  The astounding details on Operation Cyclone, began to come out and in 2003,Crile  published his findings in a book, Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History.   This book would be the basis for  the 2007 movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Tom Hanks as the titular Charlie Wilson.

The movie starts off showing Senator Charlie Wilson( Tom Hanks), frolicking around in the bath tub, with a bunch of other females, one of them an aspiring starlet Crystal Lee( Judy Taylor), her agent, where the talk is about her role for a TV show. In the opening scene itself it is clear that Charlie is hardly interested in legislating or governance.  Coming from Lufkin, Texas, a town where people, just wanted to have their guns, and be left alone, Charlie has plenty of time on his hands to frolic around, with nubile young females, partying, sniffing coke.  He has staffed his office with pretty young women, and his reason “You can teach them to type,but you can’t teach them to grow tits”.  That is what Charlie was an easy going Senator, enjoying the good life, the women, the parties. I believe that the real Charlie Wilson was even more wilder, when it came to drugs and sex.  It was quite interesting watching Hollywood’s Mr.Nice Guy  Tom Hanks, play the role of a sleazepot, and he does it quite well. One interesting part, is when Charlie is frolicking with Crystal and a couple of other strippers in the bath tub, at a hotel in Las Vegas, the camera keeps cutting to a TV show, where Dan Rather, is speaking about the crisis in Afghanistan, and how if the US does not act, it could end up being another communist state. In a way a rather nice setup to Charlie’s character later on in the movie.

Charlie for the most part is having a good time, enjoying with the female staff in his office, who seem to love him for all his sexist attitudes( or maybe it is the bad boy persona).  I did hear that  Charlie Wilson’s female staff were fanatically devoted to him in real, often nicknamed Charlie’s Angels.  And yes, listening to one of his constituent’s appeal for setting up a Nativity crche, at a fire station in Texas, his life is pretty easy. Until he runs into Joanna Herring( Julia Roberts, doing the icy blonde act), a rich born again Christian  Texan socialite,  and is the Honorary Consul to Pakistan.  Herring sleeps around with Charlie when needed, disdainfully calls his female employees as sluts, and she is the one who impresses him on the need to supply asssistance to Afghanistan.

I’ve been with the company for 24 years. I was posted in Greece for 15. Papandreou wins that election if I don’t help the junta take him prisoner. I’ve advised and armed the Hellenic army.I’ve neutralized champions of Communism.I’ve spent the past three years learning Finnish! Which should come in handy here in Virginia! And I’m never, ever, sick at sea.So I want to know why I’m not gonna be your Helsinki station chief– Gust Avrakotos

And this is where the most vital character in the movie comes into the picture, Gust Avrakotos( Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his best performances ever).  Gust is a maverick CIA agent,  passionately dedicated to his job, some one who lives and breathes it 24/7. He has no patience for the file pushers, is outspoken to a fault and cares for no one. Aaron Sorkin’s strength is in the way he introduces his characters, sets up their motivations, and the interpersonal exchanges between them. Recall Jack Nicholson’s introduction scene in A Few Good Men, where he makes it clear to Tom Cruise who the boss is. And that is the main strength of Charlie Wilson’s War, the character set up, and the exchanges between Charlie and Gust. This is one of the best introduction scenes ever, where Gust has a showdown with his superior, goes around and smashes the glass window, in one of the movie’s best scenes ever. Gust in a way sums up the typical, on the ground CIA agent, who has been hands on, and has no patience for the sanctimonious file pushers.

So give an interesting premise, characters and set up, does Charlie Wilson’s War live up to the expectations?  Yes and No.

Mike Nichol’s strength is the way he develops his characters, and the interpersonal relationships between them. He is not much of a visual stylist like David Fincher, Ridley Scott or Mann, his forte is characters in a suburbia or an urban world, and their interactions. Nichols works best on that level, be it Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  or Graduate or Postcards From the Edge. And that is the major strength of  Charlie Wilson’s  War, the interactions between Charlie and Joanna, Charlie and Gust, as they begin their mission to arm the radicals or what they call the “ultra-right”  in Afghanistan, who are fighting a losing war with the Soviets. The scenes where Joanna convince,  Charlie of the need for US intervention in Afghanistan are well played out. She for sure is an interesting character, rich Texan socialite, ex TV show hostess, ex beauty queen, who is now the Honorary Consul to Pakistan. In her own words other than boycotting the Olympics, which was a fairly impotent response,  the US Govt was hardly doing anything to prevent Afghanistan from going under the Soviet Radar.

If this were a real war,State would issue a white paperoutlining the Communist threatthe way they did in El Salvador.
If this were a real war,there’d be a National Bipartisan Commission on Afghanistan, headed by Henry Kissinger
the way they did in Central America.
If this were a real war, Congress would authorize $24 million for covert operations the way you did in Nicaragua.

The feeling is that the US was not really considering Afghanistan a threat, the way it did with some other countries during the Cold War. And that is where Joanne impresses upon Charlie the need for arming the rebels, saving Afghanistan, defeating the Russians and even ending the Cold War perhaps. Interestingly that did turn out to be prophetic, the Soviet defeat there, was one of the factors in hastening the end of the empire. Only that reality hits Charlie in the face, when he visits Gen Zia in Pakistan( Om Puri in a neat little cameo), who complains about the inadequate funds, the equipment and the fact that he does not really trust them.  As he says “You sell us planes, but not the radar,You offer Afghans rifles from WWI against Soviet helicopters”. In a rather moving scene, Charlie visits the refugee camps, and the plight of the people there moves him. Again this scene is shot quite poignantly, showcasing Charlie’s transformation, who is now fully convinced that the US needs to act fast in Afghanistan to prevent it from slipping permanently into Soviet hands.

Charlie-Were you listening at the door?
Gust- I wasn’t listening at the door.
Charlie- Were you standing – at the goddamn door listening to me?
Gust – No.
Charlie-How could you even… That’s a thick door!
You stood there and you listened to me?
Gust-I wasn’t standing at the door.
Don’t be an idiot.
Gust – I bugged the Scotch bottle.
Charlie- What?
Yeah, it’s got a little transmitter on it.

Another great scene is the first meeting between Charlie and Gust,  when the former calls him to his office.  Gust has an enclyopediac knowledge about the officials around, and as they discuss, Charlie asks him to leave the room for a moment, when his faithful aide Bonnie( Amy Adams, pretty much under utilized) drops in. Charlie comes to know that Paul Brown, the guy whom he had been hanging out in the bathtub in the first scene, is now wanted for a fraud. And he also comes to know that he is under investigation for alleged cocaine use, and hobnobbing with Paul Brown and the starlet Crystal. The best part is when Gust comes back into the room, and then reveals his indiscretions.  Charlie is shocked, and wonders if Gust was eavesdropping. And then Gust cooly reveals to Charlie, that his Scotch bottle is actually bugged, this was satire at it’s best. Tom Hanks and Paul Seymour Hoffman are both at their best in this scene.

The Soviets didn’t come into Afghanistan on a Eurail Pass. They came in T-55 tanks.The fighters need RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launchers, Katyusha 107mm rockets, wire mines, plastic mines, bicycle bombs, sniper rifles, ammunition for all the above and frequency-hopping radios and burst transmitters so these guys aren’t so fucking easy to find-Mike

Another interesting scene, is where Gust takes Charlie to a place where a bunch of  youngsters are playing chess. He calls one of the nerdy looking kids there. And then to Charlie’s  utter disbelief , it is revealed that he is actually the Weapon’s expert for CIA. Charlie feels is he being taken for a ride, here, I mean how could this nerdy looking chess player know anything about strategic ops and wars. And then the nerdy kid, Mike, explains the need for RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launchers. And here again, the need to make sure that these weapons come from Israel and Egypt, an American made weapon would have escalated into a full scale war.

Charlie Wilson’s  War works best in the entire lead to the mission, the planning, the strategies used, the discussions on the weapons. The way CIA makes use of seemingly normal people like Mike for undercover operations, is well shown, as are the ego clashes between various officials. Also to Nichols and Sorkin’s credit, they don’t  turn Charlie’s transformation from a rake, to a man who headed one of the largest covert ops in history, into something too sentimental. Yeah the scene at the refugee camp, is a bit Hollywoodish, but the transformation of Charlie’s character is shown gradually, from the first scene where he watches the TV news about Afghanistan, to his subsequent encounters with Joanna and Gust.

So what did not really work for me in this movie?

Operation Cyclone, was not just the largest covert ops in history, it also had an impact, right after the cold war.  The arms that were supplied by CIA to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, would be used by them later on the US itself, in a series of terror attacks during the 90’s which finally culminated in 9/11. The movie does quite well, in looking at how the operation was planned out, the strategies, and the scene where Gust and Charlie meet an Israeli arms dealer, is another great one. Especially the part where they suggest a co-ordinated effort between Israel and Pakistan, Egypt, their sworn enemies, which makes it clear that the Cold War was more a struggle for power, than anything else. And this now is the problem with the movie, after setting up the premise so well, looking at the way the operation was planned, carried out, it falls flat in exploring the aftermath and impact. Operation Cyclone, was problematic, in order to overthrow one enemy, the Soviets, it ended up creating a far worse enemy, much more vicious. And the movie just glosses over the whole aspect. The brilliant tongue in cheek satire, on US policies during the Cold War, and their “fight against communism”, loses out to a series of stock montages, showing the Afghans downing some Russian helicopters.  Mike Nichols works well when he is dealing with interpersonal relationships or character studies, however politics is not exactly his forte. The movie just glosses over the impact of Operation Cyclone, we just have a rather lame denoument by Charlie in the end, wondering if they had done a bigger mistake by handing Afghanistan over to the Mujahideen. Unlike Steven Spielberg’s searingly honest Munich, that explores the impact of Operation Wrath of God, on the pysche of the men handling the mission, this movie lacks the kind of introspection, that would have made it a classic. At the end of the day, it just becomes another Hollywood style, Americans get together, have fun saving the world from the bad guys, albeit written more smartly, and having a more intelligent screenplay. And that to me is where the movie falls short of being a genuine classic.

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