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February 06, 2008

Richard D. North asks, what do Charlie Wilson's War and The Kite Runner tell us about Afghanistan?: Charlie Wilson's War - Mike Nichols; The Kite Runner - Marc Forster

Posted by Richard D. North

Charlie Wilson's War
Directed by Mike Nichols
certificate 15, 2007

The Kite Runner
Directed by Marc Forster
certificate 12A, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War is a really funny film. It's a cross between Thank You For Smoking (2005) [reviewed here] and Boogie Nights (1997). It is a politically-incorrect romp with good one-liners and dark overtones. Bad taste is crucial to it.

Tom Hanks conveys canny charm with just the right sleaziness - not too much. Philip Seymour Hoffman is splendid as a high-energy nerd with focus. I can't take Julia Roberts, as it happens, but she's better than fairly good in this, though she fails to convey quite the implacably permed toughness of the Texas chatelaines I happen to have met. Aaron Sorkin's script is full-on hilarious, and it wasn't altogether obvious from his television work that this would happen.

Quite how the movie meets the criteria of the wearisomely right-on Participant films, which made it, I don't know. Well, I half do. In the activists' section of their website there's a link to two charities. One is the favoured cause of lefties who want to connect with the working class: a veterans' support campaign. And the other is the "a curse on both your houses" cause of mine-clearance in Afghanistan. But these look like rather desperate add-ons.

One suspects that Participant think there is a bigger - more deeply subversive, more satirical - message in Charlie Wilson's War. This is that when you mess with the Middle East, things are prone to go awry. So when Charlie sets about "killing Russians" as an obviously good thing to do, it is merely the precursor to twenty years of back fires, culminating in Bush and Iraq.

This raises the obvious question of whether one would have preferred to let the Russians have Afghanistan. Answer that how you may, it also raises the question of whether we should then have let the Taliban have their way, even granted that it is argued (not specifically or overtly in this film) that it was the US which funded the Taliban by mistake.

In what is widely remarked to be a limping end, Charlie is seen trying to get funds for nation-building in Afghanistan. This is presumably a gesture toward his having been quite a good egg, and also to Participant's point that the US is only good at kicking doors down, but not at policing or development.

Of course, he fails to get the money, because everyone's bored with this message. It is left open, as almost everything is in this gloriously shallow film, whether any good would have come of whatever pathetic work might have been done even with a following wind.

The real curiosity with this offering is that it seems surprisingly accurate in its account of history. It is at least as good, I guess, as a Frederick Forsyth novel such as The Afghan [reviewed here] or a Flashman novel.

I imagine that Charlie Wilson's role in swinging a Congressional committee toward this adventure was at least pivotal, and I don't care that there might have been quite a gap between its being necessary and its being sufficient. And I do suppose that when one arms Afghans, one instantly loses control of the very high ground. I would love to think that a maverick (or even a rogue) CIA operator was important to the scheme, though I imagine that at some point the whole thing got big enough to be an establishment operation.

The big point is that the State Department was being world-weary and a bit quiescent and that powerful if whacky activists found ways of getting things done anyway.

I fear I say: good on them. I mean: good on the whacky activists. It doesn't matter much what my sympathies are. What is interesting is that the majority of audiences of Charlie Wilson's War will have mostly warmed to Charlie, his loopy CIA helper, and the Texan heiress who kick-starts the mission. Audiences will do so, mistakes and all.

To this extent, I would hazard a guess that this film has badly back fired on its "liberal" producers. It is, by the way, seriously marred by its mawkish and hasty treatment of Charlie's falling in love with Afghan refugees. I don't mean that they're not moving, but rather that falling for some moody kids isn't really a good guide to what's up in international affairs. It was the only moment when I disliked Charlie.

Mawkishness rather scuppers The Kite Runner. This film has gone down extraordinarily well, and is admired in much the way of the novel on which it is based. Participant as usual gives it a section in its website and it's little more than a fairly ordinary Amnesty International guide to Afghanistan and its issues, augmented by a plea to support educational charities there. All pretty blameless stuff, and not worryingly agenda-laden.

I can't say I share the enthusiasm for Kite Runner. It seems wearisomely cheerless and right-on. Its hero Amir is a spoiled little boy who rats on his best friend but comes right as an adult by abandoning his US sanctuary for long enough to become an avenging angel back home in Kabul.

When he left, it had been the Russians who were his country's tyrants. He returns to do down a Taliban functionary who was a homosexual rapist as a youth and is now a pederast and probably still a rapist.

The trouble is that the movie doesn't really get on with making its central figure as awkwardly unattractive as he needs to be for the adventure to be at all interesting. Sure enough, during his boyhood years he is a proper little shit, but at least we easily understand his nature. In adulthood, his trajectory toward courage is somehow fluffed. He is too clunkily shown acquiring a lovely girlfriend and a general niceness. After his rescue mission in Kabul, he becomes a regular knitting pattern hero.

There are good things here. It is always fascinating to see portrayals of middle class life in "developing" countries. That was the intense hit we got from Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Central Station (1998), surely? The child actors do sterling work. There was the bleakness of the Afghan terrain - never was beige so terrifying. It was suddenly illuminated by a bright fruit or a jersey, and that was lovely.

And the show was miraculously free of anti-US sentiment. Indeed, amongst the most touching moments were the scenes in which we meet immigrant Afghanis in their covered market in California. They are making the best of their rude shunt from provincial privilege to impoverished freedom.

The Afghan father Baba, his best friend, and his servant, are all well drawn. The father especially is a lovely character, and delivered with doe-eyed intensity and wit by Homayoun Ershadi. Even here, we come back to the accusation of softness: the father is a cross between Omar Sharif and Gregory Peck. It's too much.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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