I saw Charlie Wilson's War at Bear Tooth yesterday. It was really quite good, but I spent the first 80 or so minutes (of 97) wondering if the movie was trying to make me feel good about the American government's interventions in the Afghan-Soviet wars, or if it was trying to make me uncomfortable.
Much of the movie focused on the horrible plight of the Afghan refuges fleeing Soviet advances. Clearly, this made me feel for those people. The turning and triumphant point in the movie showed Soviets in helicopters talking about life and home and then being shot down by Afghans. The next few minutes of the movie highlighted the number of downed Soviet aircraft in a roll across the screen interspersed through more scenes of exploding planes.
The entire tone of the movie at this point was triumphant and jubilant. Of course I can appreciate all of the reasons people, both Americans and Afghans, had for being excited at this victory. I felt myself buying into the triumph, the excitement, the joy...the feelings of having accomplished something, of a job well done. But I couldn't stop myself from thinking about the fact that this joy meant the loss of sons, husbands and brothers to someone. I suppose it's the same double edged sword that exists in any war.
I suppose that's precisely why I find the thought of war to be reprehensible.
That fact, combined with what I now know, what we all now know, the arming and training of the Muhjahideen by the CIA has resulted to up to present day...it just left me feeling uncertain and uncomfortable. The movie felt so triumphant, but it seemed to be ignoring so much.
HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO FEEL? And, was it working? I couldn't stop asking myself this question for the bulk of the movie.
And then came the end. Suddenly I realized that I was feeling exactly as I was supposed to, conflicted.
Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was talking to Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) about the successes in Afghanistan, and offers him a warning against his enthusiasm: "A boy is given a horse on his 14th birthday. Everyone in the village says, 'Oh how wonderful.' But a Zen master who lives in the village says, 'We shall see.' The boy falls off the horse and breaks his foot. Everyone in the village says, 'Oh how awful.' The Zen master says, 'We shall see.' The village is thrown into war and all the young men have to go to war. But, because of the broken foot, the boy stays behind. Everyone says, 'Oh, how wonderful.' The Zen master says, 'We shall see.' "
Perfect. That was perfect. I have no idea if that conversation actually transpired between the real Gust Avrakotos and Charlie Wilson, but I hope it did. Even if it didn't it was the perfect final turning point in the movie. And it assured me that the confusion I was feeling was exactly what I should be feeling.
This movie was not trying to simply sell me on the glories of American interventions abroad(which, is what I was afraid of, given the current state of propaganda and jingoism in this country.) It was attempting to bring me into the multi-faceted, complex and all too frequenly grin reality that these interventions are, even in the face of triumph.
The movie ended with Charlie attempted to lobby Congress to pay for schools in Afghanistan. Charlie recognized that to do anything else would be to abandoning these people to forces with which neither they, nor we, were at all prepared to contend. But Charlie's efforts were summarily rejected. We all know what happened in the following 20 years in Afghanistan, it's become an integral part of modern American lore. Too bad more people don't recognize, in that lore, the role that the U.S. had in creating that environment...
The final moment was nothing more than Charlie Wilson's words on the screen: "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... and then we fucked up the endgame. "
How true. And how tragic.