I've been hiding from my disappointment with Barack Obama's cave-in on the FISA legislation by catching up on some movies that have been occupying my Netflix queue for the last few weeks (i.e., sitting on my DVD player, waiting to be watched). I'm glad to say that, while very different, all three have been very good movies.
The first was "Charlie Wilson's War", which was a great yarn, as well as an interesting piece of history. First of all, it was an introduction to a classic character in American politics - Charlie Wilson may not have been unique, but he was certainly was unusual (for starters, even in the '80s, there weren't that many liberal Democrats in the House from Texas.) He is played in the movie with great charm and sympathy by Tom Hanks, and Hanks gets help at least as good as his own performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos, the CIA officer who led Wilson through getting the Afghan mujahideen the help they needed to fight the Soviet Union in that country's invasion of their country (Hoffman won an Oscar for his performance). Julia Roberts also turns in a great performance as Joanne Herring, the Houston socialite, talk show host, and conservative heavyweight who prodded Wilson into his advocacy for the Afghan rebels.
The story is interesting because Wilson played a huge role in the increase of covert support for the Afghan resistance to Soviet interference, and it's entertaining because Wilson himself was such a character (he's dodging an investigation by Rudy Giuliani into his alleged drug use throughout the beginning of his support for increased involvement. Wilson's war played a large part in the collapse of the Soviet Union (his interest in sucking the Soviets into their own Vietnam was explicit in his interest in the resistance), and the explanation of the impact that such an otherwise little known figure had is great fun to watch. The film is written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Mike Nichols, so the fact that it can make history and politics interesting and engaging is less surprising than might at first seem likely.
It's also a flawed history, in that the film implies that the primary recipient of that covert aid was the leader of the so-called "Northern Alliance", Shah Ahmed Massoud, the guy that Al Qaeda assassinated just before they attacked the World Trade Center. That's not true. Massoud received only a small portion of that aid, and the vast majority of it went to far less friendly characters, such as Pakistani ISI pet and Osama Bin Laden buddy Gulbuddin Hektmatyar, a bloodthirsty warlord that played a large role in the destruction of Afghan society, both during and after the Soviets left the country. Hektmatyar and others like him received a much larger portion of the aid that flowed from the US, and they used it to fight not only the Soviets, but also their internal rivals for power in Afghanistan. That fight left the country in the tatters that created the vacuum that the Taliban and Al Qaeda filled when we withdrew our support after the Soviets left. Some say the movie also shorts the efforts of other Americans, like Carter national security advisor Zbigniev Brezhinski, CIA director Bob Casey and President Reagan , who also pushed for the increase in support for the rebels. On balance, though, it's a good tale, despite its flaws.
One entirely accurate piece of the story is important to our current concerns about Afghanistan, and the movie makes a worthwhile contribution in pointing it out (as well as being a very entertaining story). Wilson advocated strongly, but not strongly enough, for continued "nation-building" support for Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew, and it was the failure of that advocacy that both haunted Wilson himself after the fact and laid the groundwork for the eventual rise of Al Qaeda and the Taliban that provided the base for the 9/11 attacks. Wilson's quote at the end of the movie says it well:
“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the end game”