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“Charlie Wilson’s War” reviewed by Alan Brody, UN front-line 1993 Afghanistan witness for the end-game

Because of Alan's time in Afghanistan, and because of the timing of his work with the UN in Afghanistan from 1993 onward, I was thrilled when he agreed to review the political satire "Charlie Wilson's War." I'd seen the film, thought it well-made, and well-acted, but really could find no words to share. So, it is with large gratitude that I share this review of Alan Brody's with you, a review of a dedicated worker who saw world events unfold from the front lines, supported as always, by the glorious Mary Blay-Brody.

You might also want to check out George Crile's book "Charlie Wilson's War" upon which the film is based. --JGR

Alan and Mary Blay-Brody
Mary and Alan Blay-Brody

The film "Charlie Wilson's War" begins with a ceremony at CIA headquarters, honoring Texas Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson for his role in getting the mujahideen funded and armed to drive Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, ultimately having much to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The ceremony presumably takes place in1992, the year the Soviet Union came apart, and Afghan President Najibullah's government finally collapsed in Kabul. The film ends with an epigraph:

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

I went to work in UNICEF's Afghanistan program not long after that, in March, 1993, and so I was a front-line witness to the fucking up of the end-game. (Click here to read Alan Brody's in-depth article of political analysis of Afhanistan and personal anecdote in the Virginia Quarterly on-line, a web exclusive.)

Most reviews of the film emphasize its good humor and pacing, particularly the performance and charm of Tom Hanks as the hard-drinking and womanizing Charlie Wilson, and the edge of Philip Seymour Hersh as the CIA agent Gust. There are laughs all the way through, and flashes of nudity to keep movie-goer grapevines titillated.

Some of the more politically inclined reviewers have expressed dissatisfaction with the film, as being too light or shallow. One suspects they are hoping to hijack the local Cineplex to project some manifesto on the screen, to be read aloud in their own stirring voices in full sound-surround.

I differ from those critics, and think director Mike Nichols has done an impressive job to weave historical events and serious political themes into a story that has enough laughter, sex, satire and charm to make a commercial success in middle America.

Within that genre, Charlie Wilson's War has retained considerable raw truth just underneath the light surface of this film. The American collective mind, immersed in our media hot-tub and aerated by the bubbling of 24-hour news, has practically forgotten that the "Afghan War" was for 14 years not the current American and NATO action, but a much bigger struggle that raged from 1979-92, with no small amount of U.S. engagement in it.

Intent on ensuring the Soviets got a bite in the ass in return for their Afghanistan invasion (and perhaps hoping for little payback for Vietnam), America empowered forces that have now turned around to bite Uncle Sam in the ass. The film provides discomforting reminders of that, perhaps accounting for the unease of some reviewers who seem not quite sure what to make of it.

Charlie says, "we fucked up the end game." It didn't have to be that way. In 1994, after the fall of Communism, the mujahideen groups in Afghanistan were bickering and fighting among themselves, with support to these different factions coming from their patrons in Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. That was the time when the United States, at the height of its global power, abandoned them completely.

There was no diplomatic leadership from America to resolve the conflicts, and to set in motion a rebuilding of Afghanistan. Families who had suffered and sacrificed, taking the frontline brunt of the West's fight with Communist expansionism, were abandoned by America to suffer even more after the victory.

"Charlie Wilson's War" just hints at that abandonment.
The movie tells the story of how Charlie had manipulated Congressional levers of power to increase American military aid to the mujahideen to the scale of billions of dollars. But in a scene near the end, in a small committee room, he can't convince his colleagues to include even a million dollars for schools for Afghan children, once the war has wound down. "Who gives a fuck?" seems to be the response.

In the context of our current drift into quagmire in Afghanistan, the most disturbing message of this film, to those who care to think about it, is that our country has not gleaned even an ounce of wisdom from these fuck-ups of the past. With a President who can't even remember his personal history from 30 years ago, and an Administration that erases archives and makes "I don't recall" a mantra against accountability, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan today, America showers billions on "friends," Texas politicos decide foreign policy based on oil interests and military contracts, and the Afghan people will soon celebrate the 30th anniversary of their sufferings for being in the wrong location on the map of America's strategic interests.

But not to worry, at the theatre you can still get a soft drink and buttered popcorn to assuage your hunger, on special for $7.95.

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1 Responses »

  1. I think this movie says it all for the up and commers who have to take over the political spectrum and turn this country around. Yes you guys did change history but the next generation will be smart enough to take the correct action in finishing a job well done. The generation that I speak about are the ones who were born during this occurance. Once we get in there we are going to make things right screw these old fogie politicians like McCain who have no sence and a big time you know I'll screw you over shit ass grin. Sick of it. we need true Americans ones like Charlie Wilson who talk the talk and walk the walk. Now in my favorite quote of the movie "don't fuck us up now."

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