Charlie Wilson's War

September 4, 2022 by Lucian Mogosanu

These things happened.
They were glorious and they changed the world
... and then we fucked up the endgame.

Charlie Wilson's War is an excellent film covering some of the deeds and misdeeds of the Transatlantic Empire1 at the end of the twentieth century. It was also the last piece directed by Mike Nichols, the same guy who did Catch-22. So it should come as no surprise to the reader -- especially judging by the title -- that the theme here is also war. The thing that sets Catch-22 apart from Charlie Wilson's War, however, is that the latter is grounded in a much more concrete scenario, i.e. that of the proxy war waged by the US against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the '80s, inspired by some book on, I quote, the "largest covert operation in history2".

Charlie Wilson's War is not excellent because it attempts to frame the events in the light of good guy doing his best to save the world from the commies -- on the contrary, that is the viewer's frame and his alone, based on his or her conditioning. 'member when Romanian politicians were smoking and drinking in the hallways of ye House of Peoples, and when they surrounded themselves with young, busty girls? Somehow that was "corrupted", but when Charlie Wilson does it, it's all good, innit? And I'm fully aware that they edited out the part where he smokes, but what can I do! Are you really naïve enough to believe that any respected Congressman in the '80s enjoyed his single malt scotch -- "Talisker, Isla or Glenlivet!" -- without a Cuban? You must be kidding me.

Charlie Wilson's War is also not excellent due to either the attempt to frame the conservatives as a necessary evil misusing the notion of God's will, or to otherwise paint the pantsuits as knights on white horses who are definitely "not a slave girl"s -- this distortion of values is, yes, you've guessed it! the viewer's and his alone; as is the viewer's misconception that the proverbial "nerdy-looking kid in the white shirt" would make an expert in strategic thinking due to his nerdiness or his white shirt3.

Stripped of the typical agitprop embellishments of the late Hollywood era, Charlie Wilson's War is excellent because it shows the US intervention in Afghanistan for what it was, that is, business as usual. If you think that spending the generous sum of a billion 1980s US dollars on "helping the Afghans" was anything but business as usual, then... what else do you want me to say? Then I won't even mention the medium-term side effects of training "the rebels" and the chaos sown and the fact that there weren't in fact any "winners", as the naïve so often tend to misrepresent this game4. The ending spells it quite clearly: the ends don't justify the means, if for no other reason because the expected and the actual ends will rarely match -- or, as they say in Romanian, "unde dai și unde crapă".

The film also benefits from a great cast, from Hanks to Roberts to Hoffman and Beatty, even all the way to the then-young Adams. It was definitely a pleasure to review it all, from the opening scenes developing Wilson's character, to the more humorous back-and-forth when Gus pops into Wilson's office and then all the way to what was now an expected footnote of an ending, which so bluntly urges the reader to get back to the present and take a look around. That's fifteen years' worth of time to contemplate, that I suppose by now it should be clearly visible to anyone how they "fucked up the endgame"; now, how much more they'll fuck the end-endgame... we'll see.

Other than that, post-1990 Hollywood is getting increasingly tedious to watch.

  1. I'm sure y'all folks "on the right side of history", you who keep yammering about "imperialism" up and down and all around, won't agree with this label. Well, first of all, I don't give a fuck; while second of all, history is without exception written by the winners. And the game is still on, so you and I have yet to see who's right and who's wrong. Or, as they say in one of the splendid dialogues between Hanks and Hoffman:

    Gust Avrakotos: There's a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse... and everybody in the village says, "how wonderful. The boy got a horse". And the Zen master says, "we'll see". Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, "How terrible". And the Zen master says, "We'll see". Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight... except the boy can't 'cause his leg's all messed up. And everybody in the village says, "How wonderful."
    Charlie Wilson: Now the Zen master says, "We'll see."
    Gust Avrakotos: So you get it.
    Charlie Wilson: No. No, I don't, 'cause I'm stupid.
    Gust Avrakotos: You're not stupid. You're just in Congress.

  2. One can only wonder: did the covertness make any real difference? And does the overt display, on both sides, of today's "special operations" make any difference? Is this to be the main differentiating factor?

    But more importantly: do you think that back then the USSR's politruks were desperately crying about how "the Americans are impudently calling their war a special operation"? Or how do you think that went, exactly?

    No, I'm not the one making unwarranted comparisons, silly. 

  3. Do you think, for example, that the Mossad employed "nerdy-looking kids in white shirts" to implement their part of the deal? Oh, it's not really relevant? Then why would it bear any relevance whether CIA did the same? 

  4. Yes, the events gave the USSR a vigorous kick towards disintegration, but by 1985 the USSR under the late Gorbachev was already well on that path. The USSR was, not unlike Romania and its partners in the communist bloc, already in its late stages of decay in 1980, not so unlike the EU and the US are today. No, really, give it another shot: who's making simplistic analogies and between what items more precisely?

    Do you really think that if "extending the USSR" worked as it did in the 1980s, then "extending Russia" will work all the same now? And what does this "all the same" mean? Do you, for example, think that Romanians, citizens of a NATO member who had to pull its weight through a "strategic partnership" and two percent of its GDP -- do you think they really love being bordered by a country armed to the teeth with the latest weaponry? 

Filed under: food for the soul.
RSS 2.0 feed. Comment. Send trackback.

One Response to “Charlie Wilson's War”

  1. [...] Lightman is the proverbial "nerdy-looking kid in a white shirt" approached from the opposite angle: he's a smart kid living in a social environment undergoing a [...]

Leave a Reply