Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Where's bin Laden?

It's a better question for George Bush, actually. But where's bin Laden in Charlie Wilson's War?

I read a draft of the script last year, and while most of it hasn't changed much, there were a few notable, disappointing omissions.

Let me be clear: Charlie Wilson's War is an excellent film, one of the best I've seen all year. Overall, the cast is superb. The film combines substance with wit to spare. Aaron Sorkin is a master of exposition, using it as ammunition and often off-setting it with comedy and other activities: sitting in a hot tub, a belly dance, the old West Wing walk and talk, a dance of dueling meetings reminiscent of the Marx Brothers. Director Mike Nichols knows the medium well, but he's also an actor's director, well beloved by them. Hanks is quite good as Wilson. I still think Julia Roberts is miscast, but I understand why she was cast (huge box office draw). I was ecstatic to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman cast as Gust; it's a perfect fit and one of his most enjoyable performances, and that's saying a lot. His first scene alone is worth the price of admission, and he and Hanks have great chemistry. Ned Beatty plays a small, key role. The film even has Amy Adams, splendid as always (see Junebug if you haven't), although a friend of mine noted, she should have been sporting big hair for the era (as most American women in the cast are).

As the film notes at the start, it's based on the true story (chronicled in the book of the same name) about our funding of a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, largely spurred by an unlikely figure, inveterate boozer and womanizer Charlie Wilson, Democratic Congressman of the Texas 2nd. The film's gripping and entertaining, and sometimes quite moving. There's a brief scene where Wilson speaks with some child victims of bombing in Afghanistan, and it's tastefully done, but it certainly hit me in the gut. (Sorkin and Nichols even humanize the Russians a bit.) Charlie Wilson's War's impressive because it's pretty damn ambitious, covering a vital but largely unknown chapter of our recent history, being extremely informative while avoiding what Sorkin once called the "eat your broccoli" feel. It's a very enjoyable watch.

(I've got some slight spoilers of a sort here, although if you're familiar with the basic history, they shouldn't be.)

About three-quarters into the script in the version I read, the CIA tells Wilson about new developments with the Mujahideen, and they mention Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. It's a striking moment, because the names have massive significance for us, but it's really just one more piece of interesting information for them at the time. I thought it was well handled, but it's not in the released film.

The film as released does touch on the surge of religious extremists. A late scene between Charlie Wilson and Gust uses a parable to consider the unpredictability of outcomes. A couple of other scenes on denying reconstruction funding and a ending quotation also suggest what was to come.

Still, it feels like a copout to axe the mention of Al Qaeda and bin Laden. After all, the film still mentions Jack Murtha and Rudy Giuliani by name, both prominent figures today, but much less central to both the subject matter and the theme. Cutting a few scenes of Wilson performing a drunken hit and run made some sense — besides Hollywood's aversion to making its protagonists unlikable, that sequence was about the mess of Wilson's personal life, which is interesting but not crucial. In contrast, the rise of bin Laden and Al Qaeda during the war with the Soviets, and the role of the Mujahideen in world events since, is pretty damn important. You would not know any of that by watching the film alone. It deserved at least a nod.

(A spoiler of sorts I suppose) In the version I read, the script actually ended on 9/11, with Charlie Wilson in his apartment, which has a view of the Pentagon. He has another woman over, and hears the explosion, sees the smoke, and the script ends on the look on his face — alarmed, and suspecting the truth even if he's not sure. I was wondering if that would survive to film, because it was powerful but might wrench the rest of the story. That cut seems more justified. It might even have been filmed, but didn't make the final version.

I'm just wondering to what degree those changes were aesthetically versus politically motivated. I'll be interested to check out the various interviews and the eventual DVD extras for more information. Did the studio fear some bizarre uproar? Did Nichols feel it knocked the film off-kilter? I don't know. But considering how daring the film is in many ways, and how willing it is to show the warts of war, ethnic divisions and backroom deals — not to even say the names just felt both irresponsible and, well, gutless.

I find myself thinking of Bush claiming back in 2002 or so that Saddam Hussein was dangerous because he had 'gassed his own people,' never mind that he did so in the late 80s during the Iraq-Iran war, when the Unites States was still doing business with Iraq. That gassing also occurred before Rumsfeld went to meet with Hussein to reassure him (as famously photographed, and as Rumsfeld claimed to only dimly remember). And it was before the first Gulf War. Whether one supported the invasion of Iraq or not, Bush did not speak of our previous alliance with Hussein and Iraq. I suspect his administration thought it would implicate us and introduce a level of complexity they didn't want with their cartoonish "Axis of Evil." It's one of many reasons I'd argue Bush made the case for war dishonestly, and one of the clearest early signs he simply wasn't to be trusted. Similarly, none of the crowd saber-rattling for war with Iran mentions the role of the U.S. and U.K. in covertly supporting a coup of Iran's democratically-elected government in 1953. Our current relationships with foreign powers often have important history attached. They don't exist a vacuum.

The reason I bring all this up is, like it or not, pop culture is where a great number of Americans get their history. While entertaining, Charlie Wilson's War is so much more than a popcorn flick. It's a very good film, and I intend to buy a copy when available. But I feel it could have been better still. And I really do want to hear what the decision-making process was for those elements.

Here's a cinematic example. All the President's Men is a great film, but it ends a bit oddly, with a news ticker summing up Nixon's resignation. Since the film came out in 1976, the thinking was that the audience was familiar with everything that happened, so why not just end quickly. William Goldman, the screenwriter, has since said it was a mistake. The speed wasn't a bad thing per se, but they should have been more cinematic, perhaps used some footage or something, because nowadays the ending doesn't play as well.

Interestingly enough, The History Channel special, The True Story of Charlie Wilson's War, is much more direct about bin Laden than the film is. The show is one of those joint movie studio-cable ventures, fairly fluffy, intended to promote the film. No one, for example, bothers to ask whether it's really a good idea for a lone congressman and a rogue CIA agent to set foreign policy and wage a covert war. Still, it's interesting to hear from Wilson himself, several of the other players, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and to learn which of the details in the film are true. The bin Laden section comes in the last five to ten minutes. (For background, Carol Shannon is a Texas belly-dancer and a friend of Charlie's who features in the story, and Azizullah Din Muhammed was an Afghan rebel who met Charlie a few times during the covert war.) I transcribed the section in question:

[Footage of the smoking twin towers.]

Narrator: Today, Charlie Wilson's war must be seen in the context of September 11, 2001.

Aaron Sorkin: The two biggest threats ever, to our security, were the spread of Soviet Communism and the rise of Islamic fanaticism. Charlie is a guy who had a hand in stopping one, and accidentally starting the other.

Narrator: Though all of the 9/11 hijackers were Arabs, the operation was planned by a terrorist organization sheltered in Afghanistan.

[Footage of bin Laden.]

Charlie Wilson: We bear responsibility, because we didn't try to rebuild Afghanistan.

Azizullah Din Muhammed (Afghan Rebel): European countries and the U.S., they thought that once the Soviet Union was defeated, the job was over. They did not think about setting up a government in Afghanistan.

Wilson: We left a vacuum, and the vacuum was filled by the Taliban and by Al Qaeda.

Sorkin: There's no question that the Afghan victory and 9/11 are holding hands with each other. Is it Charlie Wilson's fault? No, don't be ridiculous. No one's responsible for 9/11, except for a bunch of twisted [bleep]suckers.

Narrator: CIA officers maintain that they never trained or armed the foreign volunteer fighters that would one day form Al Qaeda. During the 1980s, it was the Soviet Union that represented the gravest threat to U.S. national security. Like many Americans, Charlie Wilson lived much of his life with the omnipresent threat of a Soviet nuclear attack.

Carol Shannon: He had a lot of nightmares. And I hope they're over now.

Narrator: History will show that the evil empire was brought down by a colorful cast of characters, led by a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing Texas congressman.

Sorkin: President Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, when asked how in the world did the Afghans beat the most powerful army on the face of the world, President Zia responded:

President Zia: Charlie did it.

They don't even mention bin Laden or Al Qaeda by name, but do show video footage of him. Still, apart from that, and the narrator's hype (especially saying "the evil empire"), they offer a reasonably accurate, fair account (if severely truncated). While Wikipedia is far from definitive, its article on "Allegations of CIA assistance to Osama bin Laden" ain't bad, and offers more information on the subject. A key passage relays that:

Robin Cook, former leader of the British House of Commons and Foreign Secretary from 1997-2001, wrote in The Guardian on Friday, July 8, 2005,

Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally "the database", was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. [8]

Meanwhile, the same article notes, as did the History Channel narrator, that the CIA have denied that they directly funded or trained bin Laden. Reporter Peter Bergen, among others, believes this, and the article lists several reasons for it. I can buy that there wasn't direct funding or training, since bin Laden had his own sources, but the U.S. or its proxy Pakistan were funding and training plenty of those fighting the Soviets. Meanwhile, it's undeniable that the U.S. and Al Qaeda were fighting on the same side back then. Simply mentioning that doesn't endorse a theory of "blowback" for 9/11, and even a theory of blowback doesn't excuse those who perpetrated 9/11.

The book The Kite Runner, also a film now, deals with some of the same period in Afghanistan. As one character notes in the book, at first many in Afghanistan cheered the Taliban, because they were replacing the Russians and took care of some criminals and scoundrels. But then, the edicts started, and the Taliban were feared and despised by many that first welcomed them. Politics and foreign affairs are seldom black and white.

Portraying that reality is what makes Charlie Wilson's War a good film, and also the reason I feel it falls short on this one matter. Perhaps I'm being uncharitable, and I'll look forward to learning more about the decisions behind the scenes. Overall, Charlie Wilson's War presents a pretty complex, sophisticated view of the world, where small decisions can snowball, and policies that seem wise at the time can lead to other complications, some predictable, some unseen. But see the film, and decide for yourself.

Update: Thanks to Mike of Mike's Blog Roundup for the link at C&L, most of all for also linking "Tom Hanks Tells Hollywood Whopper in 'Charlie Wilson's War'" by Melissa Roddy at AlterNet. Roddy apparently read an earlier version of the script too, and has much more detail on a few of the specific changes. I find it interesting that, apparently, the real Wilson was willing to be more candid with the History Channel special promoting the film than he was with the studio on the film itself. Of course, one's going to be seen by many more people (although I expect that a special edition DVD of Charlie Wilson's War will include the History Channel special, will probably include deleted scenes and might well discuss the script changes). I continue to be interested in more information about this.

Update 2: I have a follow-up post with more information about the actual history omitted from the film.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


Skewered Left said...

Thanks for the great critique and thorough background notes.
Looking forward to seeing this movie now that I have a bit of an understanding of its history.

FranIAm said...

This is a great post! Very impressive.

I too saw the film and thought it was great. Agree with you completely on the casting. Hoffman was brilliant- I think he is great is almost everything (Flawless is a notable example to the contrary, although I will hold that more to a bad film than a bad performance.)

And I too was wondering "no mention of Al Queda?" It was glaringly obvious and a reminder that we do have censorship and propaganga all around.

Ahmed Shah Massoud got a brief mention, but even that was a bit lame in the context of history.

When I mentioned this to a friend, he said cheerfully that American movie-goers don't want to have too much "of that". Nice.

There is the problem perhaps.

Anyway, thanks for this Battochio!

Happy 2008!

Batocchio said...

I still haven't seen Flawless. I have a friend that adores Hoffman, and loved him in that, although she said the film overall wasn't great.

As for Americans not wanting too much of "that," that idea always frustrates me. I'm sick of Americans being completely shocked by world events. And many of us are interested. But sadly, one needs to dig, or go to the best news sources, to find it.

It's interesting - throughout the presidential campaigns, it's consistently been bloggers and average citizens who have pushed for more depth, and the MSM that's consistently fought to keep things more superficial.

Meanwhile, the foreword for the comic V for Vendetta describes an incident in a British pub where the matron changes the channel when the news comes on, because who wants to see that. The foreword explains that the comic is for people "who don't change the channel." I've always liked that phrase.

FranIAm said...

People who don't change the channel- that is great.

I must say that I was always interested in news and details and issues, that were harder to get at pre-internet. However, blogging has sharpened my own skills and thoughts considerably.

Does this mean we can be paid the salary of a big time cable news exec?

Hmmm... that is what I thought you were going to say!

opit said...

While I loved the show and posted a link noting the Wikipedia entry on it, I later came across this critique which soured it somewhat

Batocchio said...

Opit, thanks, I hadn't seen that one, although I have a follow-up post as well. The URL appears to be a bit off, but this one seems to work.