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Charlie Wilson’s War: The Then and Now of the United States?

This year’s Oscar nominee, Charlie Wilson’s War (Philip Seymour Hoffman for Best Supporting Actor) is a puzzle. It could be one of two things: an incredibly clever, subtle scathing comment on the history of American foreign policy, or a fairly uni-dimensional – not to mention jingoistic – addition to the ‘great America’ series that occupies a significant place in Hollywood.

The film is based on the life of Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), who, in spite of being a rampant womaniser and a person of generally questionable morals, was greatly moved by the plight of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan during the Cold War when Soviet Russia was attacking Afghanistan.

The US believed in erring on what they considered the side of caution as far as Communist or for that matter any left-wing radical tendencies were concerned. Caution being represented by unsubstantiated accusations, murders, curbs on intellectual, artistic freedom and in more extreme cases, bans and the overall witch-hunt that started in the McCarthy era. One is tempted to admire their handiwork in creating mass-hysteria for generations to come against leftist tendencies or beliefs. Charlie Wilson is upheld as a force that may have changed the history of the world, saving it from drowning in the deep waters of Communism and domination by the godless Soviets.

The film too, at least in its surface structure, charts the journey of this small-time congressman who overcame great hurdles, both political and personal, to make drastic changes in not just US foreign policy, but also diplomatic affairs of other countries like Pakistan. Wilson moves from a courtesy call to President Zia ul Haq to the undying commitment he developed to bettering the plight of the Afghani people and fighting on their behalf. Why this film seems like it might be yet another piece of American propaganda is because like all propaganda films, it shows just one point of view – statistics and images of death and despair selected with a clear agenda — to clarify the good from the evil. Russian pilots are shown for a sum-total of thirty seconds, where they display their soullessness (since they were godless they had to be soulless as well, right?) very satisfactorily. Gradually, Wilson had the US parliament convinced that it is their moral duty to help Afghanistan fight the Soviets. And slowly, the Government of the United States of America increased the arms budget for the Mujahideen of Afghanistan from $ 5 million to a whopping billion dollars.

However, there could be a deep structure to this film, a kind of subtlety we haven’t witnessed in a long time, if ever. And this structure is imaginable only because of the decade we are in, where the US and Afghanistan have once again found mention on the same page, only this time, not so friendly. In this decade, the US graduated to a new pet-hate after Communism – Islam. Signifiers of a critique in the film are so small that in the success story of Charlie Wilson, they can elude us. The keywords are Afghanistan, Mujahideen and the Arms supply and budget from the US to the Mujahideen. The film went as far as to specify that the Mujahideen ran schools that trained students for armed battle against the enemy. What they don’t obviously mention is that Osama bin Laden, 9/11 and a number of world terrorist attacks are a result of the Mujahideen. For once there was a mainstream American film accepting a relationship of support for the Mujahideen and that too one of arming and funding them. Is there an acceptance of their role in the world terror situation? An acceptance of the partial amnesia that the US has undergone about this little heal-the-world project it undertook? In my opinion, Mujahideen is too topical, too well-known a word for the filmmakers to expect an overlooking.

Another contributor to this sneaking hope is one image in the film. Tom Hanks, dressed in Afghani costume and headgear, with his back to us, standing with the Mujahideen, holding a big gun (stinger tube), raising it to the sky as if dedicating it to God. I was instantly reminded of so many pictures of terrorists in a variety of media. Once again, too loaded an image to have used lightly. I am reminded of Soldier Blue where dominant images of the Vietnam War (the soldier holding a dead girl) were used in the mis-en-scene of the film’s final sequence.

Like most political films about the US in recent times, this has an opinion – by means of implication – on the Iraq war. In the final scene, when Wilson tries to get funds for education and the rebuilding of Afghanistan, he meets disappointment. US officials weren’t interested in any actual development activity once they had achieved the defeat of Russians. The Mujahideen went on to ruin any semblance of order in the country, ultimately giving rise to the Taliban. The question is: Is history being repeated in Iraq? This sequence of the film doesn’t actively question the fact of interference in the affairs of another country (the Soviet Union was invited by the government of Afghanistan), maybe not even question the US’s hysterical stance on Communism, but it does bring forth their role in the destruction of a country – one they had set out to save.

In the wake of growing sympathy for the US forces stationed in Iraq and in the increasing strength of the demand to call them back, Hollywood is playing its very crucial part by exploring all the reasons why US should retreat from Iraq. Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs is more explicit since it takes names and is more openly self-critical. I have a feeling, Charlie Wilson’s War has that inclination too, only it does it very subtly, perhaps too subtly. And maybe not at all. But that’s not what I like to believe.

Footnote: The image used here is a frame from the film Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). It meets all the tenets of the Fair Use Rationale, in particular that the image does not in any way limit the ability of the copyright owners to market or sell their product.

3 comments

1 Kishore Budha { 02.27.08 at 9:52 am }

Whether Delta Force, Rambo, or the more benign City of Joy, Hollywood encourages us — subtly — to identify with the protaganist through narcissism and then slip in their propagandist messages. In all cases, the central function of the plot is to other the rest of the world (ironically in all probablity even the “brownies”, “blackies”, and “chinks” will identify themselves with the protaganist, while he goes about mass murdering people and unleashing mayhem.

As Zizek argues, this is the genius of Hollywood. On one hand we claim that no it is nothing, just a harmless fun, a film, oh look at the camera etc etc. And on the other hand, we refuse to read the obviously fascist message of such films (Take Curtis White’s brilliant analysis of Saving Private Ryan here http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no1/white.html).

Our own films, such as “Chak De” embody this fascism.

2 kuhu { 02.27.08 at 1:31 pm }

You’ve said this once before about Chak de India and i haven’t noticed that. please elaborate.

3 Kishore Budha { 02.29.08 at 11:12 am }

I haven’t watched the film yet. It would be interesting to pursue your first hypothesis that it is a critique of American foreign policy.

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