As the matter of Afghanistan has come up yesterday, this might be a good time to add a little film review related to the subject. (I hope you do not mind that I use this weblog also to review books, films or even computer games now and then.)
Like most films I watch, the one I want to talk about today reflects on real events. It is called Charlie Wilson's War and based on George Crile's book with the same title (first published in 2003).
Both book and film tell the most unbelievable - but entirely true - background story to one of the most secret and successful intelligence operations in modern times, Operation Cyclone. This was the code name for Americas covert operations in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan during the 1980s, a secret war against Communism the CIA directed through various channels, including Israeli defence industries, Egypt's Ministry of Defence, Pakistan's government, army and inter-service intelligence agency (ISI), the Saudi Royal Family, and various other individuals, organisations and groups. Many of these groups, at the time known under the collective name "Mujahideen" (Arabic for strugglers), have meanwhile disappeared into history, but some of the names on the CIA's "list of friends" are still of relevance. They are Hezbi Islami (lead by the fanatic Gulbuddin Hekmatyar), Al-Qaeda (lead by the scholar Abdullah Yusuf Azzam) and Maktab al-Khadamat - or "MAK", as the Americans called them - (lead by Osama bin Laden). *
But even though the film is about Afghanistan and shows plenty of it, some with original footage from reconnaissance and news reports of the time, its main focus is the title hero Charlie Wilson, a member of the US House of Representatives from East Texas. A Democrat with very liberal views and a gregarious personal lifestyle, Charles Nesbitt Wilson (left, and not to be confused with the now sitting Congressman Charlie Wilson, a Democrat representing Ohio) was not the kind of politician one would find centre-stage in the limelight of national politics. Quite the opposite, in fact. But Wilson, a former naval officer, had some unusual friends, among them the colourful Houston socialite Joanne King Herring, a woman endowed equally with great wealth and great beauty. Her special concern for the plight of Afghani refugees who fled to Pakistan in their millions after the Soviets had invaded and occupied their country led to Wilson becoming interested as well. And even though a rather small fish in the great pond of Washington D.C., the Texan Congressman sat on the right committees, among them the one that appropriates secret funding for the CIA and other US intelligence agencies. With a combination of persuasion, political horse trading and using every trick in the book Wilson (played by Tom Hanks, who also produced the film) manages to increase the CIA's covert operations budget for Afghanistan from an original $ 5 million per annum to more than $ 600 million each year!
Hanks, who is an amazingly authentic look-alike of the real Charlie Wilson, does not only create a well-deserved memory for all those who were involved, he also shows us how Congress really works and how easy it is in fact to manipulate massive amounts of money without the public ever having the slightest idea of it. Had there been ever any doubt about it, this film demonstrates how very similar the modern US Congress is to the Senate of ancient Rome.
Not surprisingly, this is a very American film, which means that messages are coming straight at you and miss the subtlety one might find in some European productions. But it is a very good and informative film, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in current affairs.
The only shortfall in this otherwise well-made film is the casting of Julia Roberts as the wealthy Texan socialite Joanne King Herring.
No disrespect to Ms. Roberts, who has appeared in many films and is certainly a very talented actress, but she did not bring across the personality and spirit of Joanne Herring, and most significantly not her exceptional beauty. The real Joanne (pictured here with Julia Roberts) is like a mixture of Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Thatcher all in one, and also not very tall (while the real Charlie Wilson is). As Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are almost of the same height, the great physical difference and the element of Charlie towering over Joanne are entirely missed. And - again with no disrespect - Ms. Roberts' mouth and nose are just too large to be really beautiful, while Joanne Herring has a really classic porcelain doll's face.
As it happens, this is the second time that Julia Roberts was chosen to play a woman of historical significance which she neither resembles physically nor fits in any way. The other was Kitty Kiernan, the girlfriend of Ireland's revolution hero Michael Collins, played in the film of the same title by Liam Neeson.
It appears that certain Hollywood studios insist on particular "stars" appearing in their films, regardless if they fit the character or not. And being one of the highest paid actresses in the USA, I suppose that Julia Roberts just gets as many major roles as possible. Sadly, it does not always work. But nevertheless, she is a vivacious woman and fits at least the bill in this way, even though she looks not a bit like the real Joanne King Herring (who even now, as an elderly woman, has still one of the most beautiful faces in the western world...)
In contrast to Julia Roberts, the casting of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the unconventional Greek-American CIA agent Gust Avrakotos makes the film not only more realistic, but also adds a lot of quite funny elements to it. Rough diamonds like the real Avrakotos are rare, but without them most intelligence services could not function.
Even though the director, Mike Nichols, has made a number of films before, the German-born son of Russian Jews is better known for his theatre work. With Charlie Wilson's War he does move into new artistic territory, and it seems he feels quite at home there already.
The Emerald Islander
* After Azzam's death in 1989 Osama bin Laden merged MAK with Al-Qaeda and became its new leader.