24 January, 2008
Charlie Wilson, a lazy playboy politician, confronted by the suffering of Afghan refugees changes to try and help the Mujahideen defeat the Soviet invaders.
There’s been a debate on Shooting People's Screenwriter’s Network regarding this film which raises intriguing questions.
Can a film be judged purely as a film regardless of what may be dodgy morals of the leading characters or dodgy ethics of what went on?
I believe so but it depends on how well it is written. I think Aaron Sorkin did a really good job on this adaptation but the sophisticated way it is done will not be to everyone’s taste.
Whether the political situation is portrayed accurately or not is a separate moral and ethical issue. As an extremely extreme example, consider the depiction of Jews by Wagner or Dickens, it’s morally repugnant but as works of art The Ring and Oliver Twist are pretty damn awesome.
Putting the politics aside for a moment, the movie has a great structure, great characters and excellent dialogue. Wilson’s character arc is classic: lazy playboy politician - who isn't really interested in making a difference - sees the suffering of the Afghan refugees and so becomes hard-working to achieve the goal of stopping that suffering by getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
It is in the very nature of a character arc that the character will change, but although Wilson becomes hard-working he is still a non-celibate bachelor with all that entails from sharing a hot tub with strippers to employing hot women on his staff.
What I realised for the first time, from the Shooters discussion, was how for some people such flaws can be a road block to empathy for the character and caring about the story but the alternative of writing saints is just too stupid to think about.
There are many levels at work here, amongst them that Wilson is literally in bed with a right-wing nut-job who wants his help against the Soviets for religious reasons, but it's made clear he's doing it from a humanitarian Democrat perspective.
The concerns about the politics are not entirely unfounded as effectively you have the hero supporting a neo-con covert war being waged against an elected government and the country they invited in to help quell an Islamofascist rebellion. However, what some people fail to realise is that depicting something that happened isn’t the same as agreeing with it.
What’s good about the film for most people, and what confused some, are the shades of grey; the subtleties and ironies. You have a Democrat doing what Republicans want but for different reasons. And when he continues to push a humanitarian agenda and rebuild the country after the Soviets leave, the Republicans aren’t interested - which comes back to bite them on 9/11.
Actually the 9/11 ending is only in the first draft script and Sorkin fought to keep it for a long time. It is more explicit and obvious but I thought the new ending worked better as it was more subtle. The celebration at the beginning is repeated at the end but by then we realise there was nothing much to celebrate really. It’s swings and roundabouts as that was clearly too subtle for some.
What I admired was the way Sorkin also made a parallel between neo-cons and the Mujahideen in terms of fundamentalist faith and the consequences of relying on that as a solution to the Afghanistan problem.
With Charlie Wilson’s War, Sorkin has managed to avoid the usual pitfalls political dramas drop into by being intelligent, funny and fast moving. Look at the tricks he uses to avoid it seeming too talky, and I don’t just mean his patented “walk and talk”. I recommend it.
Aaron Sorkin interview
Aaron Sorkin’s first draft