Baddies will be baddies
Charlie Wilson's War (Mike Nichols, 2007)
Charlie Wilson's War is quite an uncommon product in terms of its Hollywood-like manufacture. The political critique that it tries to deliver is indeed an unusual occurrence nowadays, especially, taking into account its origin. Only because of this, I think it is worth seeing. Mike Nichols's film features A-list stars and it surely has cost big bucks to get made. You can see there is money here. It is not some indie director with a camera trying to denounce war's hidden motivations.
The film tells the (allegedly) true story of how a playboy congressman (Tom Hanks) and a wealthy socialite (Julia Roberts) manage to put an end to the Cold War almost single-handedly. Thanks to their initiative the US government undertakes a covert war against the USSR, which was attacking Afghanistan in the early 80s, and the victory of the latter leads to the final dissolution of the Soviet Union. The main interest of the film resides in its critique of contemporary politics. Although it fails to mention the fact that one of the reasons (or rather, excuses) for Russia to attack Afghanistan at that time was to put an end to the threat Islamic fundamentalism represented (does it ring a bell?), the film does contain a sharp critique of US current management of foreign affairs.
The end of the film tries to show how yesterday's mistakes are coming back to haunt the country: after spending $1000 million to support the war, the high spheres in the government refuse to allot just one million to the reconstruction of the country. Hanks's character points out how ridiculous that is and predicts the negative consequences it may bring. Well, we are experiencing those consequences nowadays: the Muyahid soldiers America trained, financed and supported back in the 80s constitute the bulk of the Taliban movement today. The US seem to have forgotten this, but cinema is there to remind them: it is odd to see today 80s movies like Rambo III in which the Talibans are actually the goodies (in this film Rambo joins forces with them in order to fight the communists). Collective memory is very weak, and America seems to have forgotten that not so long ago it directly financed today's terrorism, so it is good that films like Charlie Wilson's War remind us of this from time to time.
This is the good part. As I have said, I regard this political critique as a strong point in favour of the film. However, the film is very ambiguous (to say the least) in other crucial aspects, such as America's right of intervention in the name of democracy in any conflict around the world and also in its portrayal of the Soviet Union as perpetually evil. In a film where the internal workings of politics are ridiculed and hidden interests are laid bare it is a shame to find once again the same old imperialist message Hollywood has been selling us virtually since its invention. To judge from films like this, the American belief in its “Manifest Destiny” is still alive and well in the US collective unconscious. For instance, it is quite striking to still find such a Manichean portrayal of the communist/capitalist confrontation these days. I was so shocked by the imperialist message in the film that at first I thought that it could be read as a parody of the political and war films of the 80s, in which the Russians were depicted as blood-thirsty and heartless people. However, as the film progressed I began to get the impression that everything was meant to be taken at face value, thus making us align with Hanks's good intentions and the poor people of Afghanistan. I would like to believe Nichols was trying to accomplish the former, but I am afraid the great majority of spectators will be more inclined to the latter. The film makes use of all means available to make us identify with Afghanistan's (and by extension America's) position: the misery of refugee camps is shown at length, including heartbreaking scenes of mutilated children telling us how Russians plant mines that look like toys in their fields. As always, we have full access to these people's misfortunes but we never get to see the enemy's point of view. We only see cold-blooded Russians mercilessly slaughtering Afghans on board planes and helicopters while discussing trivial topics like their relationships with women. It is true that Hanks's character is presented as slightly “flawed” (he is a consummated playboy, drinks heavily and frequently indulges in parties and drugs). However, he is such a nice guy and his intentions are so genuinely good that we have no option but to like him. And what about Julia Roberts's character? Sure, she is described (only described, we never really get to see her “in action”) as an extreme right-wing, pro-McCarthy religious fanatic, but it is her original initiative that finally puts an end to the Cold War, and hey… she is Julia Roberts, how can you dislike her? If the director did not want us to sympathise with this character, why did he choose the 90s America's Sweetheart? For all these reasons and several others, the spectator is almost “pushed” to rejoice when Wilson finally gets the money to destroy the Soviets, thus supporting the righteousness of America's “manifest destiny”. This is followed by a series of (most of the time) real images in which Soviet planes and helicopters are shot down, which the spectator cannot help but contemplate with glee without stopping to wonder about the mothers of the Soviet soldiers killed.
For this reason I left the cinema with an ambiguous feeling: on the one hand, the film constitutes a necessary and quite healthy criticism of US political actions, but how is this compatible with its fierce (and outdated) anti-communism and with its defence of America's right of intervention wherever it likes in order to bring “freedom” and “democracy” to the “oppressed”? For me, the answer lies in the fact that Nichols's film criticises how things are done, not the actual things that the US government does, which remain not only unquestioned but amply extolled. That is why Charlie Wilson's War fails to constitute a convincing political critique: it does not go the whole way in its critical intentions, leaving us half way through. This is quite a disappointment, but it could be worse… Go and see it. You decide.