Charlie Wilson's War, the movie, is set to open nationwide on Friday. A recent screening in Manhattan was about two-thirds full, and the response when the lights came up was tepid applause. It's not a bad movie, basically Tom Hanks wearing suspenders, grab-assing with Julia Roberts, and drinking a lot of scotch. It also features trademark Aaron Sorkin screenwriting: dense, snappy dialogue a la "West Wing" and A Few Good Men (Sorkin also has a new Broadway offering, The Farnsworth Invention), and direction by Mike Nichols (Primary Colors). Philip Seymour Hoffman rounds out the cast, and he does his usual fine turn as Gust Avrokotos, a CIA agent with a chip on his shoulder. It is a film based on actual events, events chronicled in George Crile's book, subtitled "The Extraordinary Story of how the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times." Charlie Wilson's War, the book, takes a lot longer than the movie to absorb, but it is worth the time. It's an amazing story that just about does justice to that rambling subtitle. In addition to being a sensational tale of political maneuvering, high-power high jinks, and clandestine operations, Crile's reporting provokes deep thoughts about how the Cold War was ended and how legislative government really functions in America. Crile hints that Wilson, the Democratic Congressman from Texas, hard drinker, notorious philanderer, "Good Time Charlie," as he was called, may have had a hand in saving the world from the Soviets. As a member of the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee, Wilson wrangled millions of Federal dollars for the CIA to support the Islamic tribal guerrilla factions within Afghanistan that battled the Red Army, which occupied Kabul in late 1979, throughout the 1980s. Guns, mortars, mines, rocket launchers: things that jihadists need to kill Commies."Afghanistan was the largest and most successful covert operation ever mounted by the CIA," writes Crile. The partnership between Wilson, the congressman, and Avrakotos, head of the CIA's South Asian Operations Bureau, made it happen. The degree to which the Red Army's defeat in Afghanistan, culminating in complete withdrawal in 1989, influenced the subsequent raising of the iron curtain, collapse of the U.S.S.R., and end of the Cold War, is a matter for debate. Wilson recognized that there was one place in the world, Afghanistan, where the U.S. had an opportunity to have a hand in the killing of Soviet soldiers. After seeing the refugee camps in Pakistan, and meeting with numerous mujahideen, Wilson came to view them as freedom fighters, and he championed their cause.But inspiring as Charlie Wilson's story is, let's face it: it's frightening to think that an obscure congressman could have such awesome power to dictate American foreign policy. Did Wilson and Avrakotos break laws in the course of directing the most successful covert operation ever mounted by the CIA? Crile writes the following:At a time when [Nicaraguan] Contras could not get a dime from Congress, Charlie Wilson had managed to turn the CIA's cautious bleeding campaign in Afghanistan into a half-billion-dollars-a-year operation that dwarfed any prior agency effort. For all practical purposes Wilson had hijacked U.S. foreign policy and was busy transforming it into the first direct winner-take-all contest with the Soviet Union... He was now engaged in the kind of sensitive diplomacy that is technically illegal for anyone other than the White House to conduct: Cutting arms deals with the defense minister of Egypt; commissioning Israel to design weapons for the CIA; negotiating all manner of extraordinarily controversial matters with the all important U.S. ally general Zia [ul-Haq, president of Pakistan].Whether or not his actions were legal, it would seem that Wilson was motivated by patriotic ideals, to aid victims of tyrannical aggression and hurt the U.S.'s great Red enemy. But part of what makes this such a jaw dropping story is that Wilson was able to accomplish what he did - and get away with it.Honest though his motives were, Wilson's actions had unforeseen consequences, a fact that was brought home to him on September 11, 2001. All of the hijackers who hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon had spent time training in Afghanistan. I shuddered when I read this sentence:For anyone trying to make sense of this new enemy, it would seem relevant that for over a decade in the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. government sponsored the largest and most successful jihad in modern history; that the CIA secretly armed and trained several hundred thousand fundamentalist warriors to fight against our common Soviet enemy; and that many of those who now targeted America were veterans of that earlier CIA sponsored jihad.Especially when considered in light of the intelligence failures that predicated the 9/11 attacks, the CIA emerges from the Charlie Wilson saga with their usual black eye, despite the Afghan war with Soviets being supposedly the Agency's finest moment. It is a perverse glory that comes with winning a "proxy" war. It would seem a rather ignoble pursuit.
Since several others have covered the most anticipated books of 2007, I thought I'd fill everybody in on which of their favorite books are going to be ruined by Hollywood in the coming year. Since almost every movie made is based on some previously existing material (can we count Spider Man 3 as an adaptation?), I thought I'd separate the kids movies and the horror/comic adaptations from the "literary" adaptations. Feel free to point out the movies I missed.Kids flicks. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (IMDb) will dominate the box office in July. The latest installment of the juggernaut will feature a script by Michael Goldenberg (who is also penning the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (IMDb)) and direction by David Yates, who is best known for his HBO movie The Girl in the Cafe. I've never read a Harry Potter book, and I've never seen any of the movies either. It's safe to say the phenomenon has completely passed me by, so I leave it to you to decide whether this movie will be better than the ones that Chris Columbus directed.His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass (IMDb), which has been discussed before on this blog, will no doubt own the holiday season. After some turbulence during development and production, the first part of Phillip Pullman's trilogy will hit theaters on December 7.Finally, Bridge to Terabithia (IMDb) will get a new coat of paint, courtesy of Rugrats veteran Gabor Csupo. It's a live action version of the book, starring Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, and a bunch of child actors with whom I am not familiar. No telling whether this will replace the vaunted 1985 TV adaptation as the definitive Terabithia for the screen.Gore filled fun-fests. Dominic West, better known as hard-drinking detective Jimmy McNulty on the greatest show ever to air on television, has a hand in two bloody adaptations this year. In Hannibal Rising (IMDb), he'll be playing Inspector. I can only assume that this Inspector is a hard-drinking Eastern European detective, but not having read the book, I can't say. The folks over at Slow Match are debating the merits of Thomas Harris' latest this month. Maybe they have the answer.In 300 (IMDb), adapted from a Frank Miller graphic novel, West will play Theron, the hard-drinking Spartan warrior. I wasn't that excited about either of these films before I found out West was in them. Now I'm planning on camping out, Star Wars-style for tickets.Mainstream Literary Adaptations. Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake (IMDb), directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) will debut in March. Kal Penn, of Harold and Kumar go to White Castle fame, has the lead role. Here's hoping he has more lines than he did in Superman Returns.April will bring us showers, a new baseball season, and The Nanny Diaries (IMDb), starring Scarlett Johanson, Laura Linney, and Paul Giamatti. I'm sure the studio is hoping to hit the same market that made The Devil Wears Prada a huge success, but I'm skeptical. DWP had a tour de force performance from Meryl Streep (Don't you just get the feeling she's going to get snubbed for the Oscar, by the way?) and a generally likable cast. The Nanny Diaries has ScarJo, who I detest. Tough call.Also in April comes Atonement (IMDb). Directed by Joe Wright, whose version of Pride & Prejudice was almost universally lauded, Atonement features a bit of controversial casting. Yes, traditional English heavyweights Brenda Blethyn and Vanessa Redgrave have parts, but the lead role of Cecilia will be played by the skeletal remains of Keira Knightly. Fans of the book are less than pleased.In September, I will certainly be seeing Feast of Love (IMDb), adapted from the Charles Baxter novel. The cast features Selma Blair, Morgan Freeman, and Greg Kinnear (Tangent: Isn't Greg Kinnear having one of the most sneaky-successful careers of the last ten years? Who would've predicted it during his "Talk Soup" days?). It's an odd choice for an adaption. I've read the book, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, it didn't strike me as terribly cinematic.November will see John Burnham Schwartz's novel Reservation Road (IMDb) adapted starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly. This is the prototypical small-ish novel adaptation, along the lines of The Ice Storm. It could go either way, turning into another In the Bedroom or another We Don't Live Here Anymore.Also in November comes the granddaddy of all literary adaptations, Beowolf (IMDb). Robert Zemeckis directs a script from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery. Beowolf features my favorite bit of casting for the year - Crispin Glover as Grendel. How perfect is that?And finally, in late December, comes Charlie Wilson's War (IMDb), starring Tom Hanks as the eponymous Texas congressman. Julia Roberts, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are also aboard for this spy drama of which much is expected. Mike Nichols directs a rare film script from Aaron Sorkin, which means there will be lots of walking-and-talking scenes and probably too much pontificating, but hopefully no sketch comedy.Several literary adaptations of note, including the highly anticipated The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (IMDb), The Corrections (IMDb), and Motherless Brooklyn (IMDb) are all slated for release in 2007. My advice is don't hold your breath for any of them. Until I see an actual release date, I'm not buying it. 2008 sounds about right for all of those. Until then, you'll have to settle for Rush Hour 3, Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Ocean's 13: The Baker's Dozen.