A good story

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Jan. 3, 2008

Dear Julie,

A few years ago George Strait recorded a song that always makes my mother cry. The title itself, "Merry Christmas Wherever You Are," could do it alone. But the song's beauty was in its melodic longing for someone not present.

We had heard a version recorded by Jerry Laseter, the co-writer, a Southeast Missouri boy my brother knows. But Mr. Strait, in his recording, did something you'd think a musician of his ability wouldn't. He changed a crucial chord. The change from minor to major resolved the longing in the music, though the lyrics provided no such homecoming. The discord jarred.

The movie "Charlie Wilson's War" struck me the same way. Fine actors, fine performances, a talented director. And yet, the movie seems false.

At best Charlie Wilson was a heroic scoundrel. What in Tom Hanks' filmography would make him believable in that role? The Tom Hanks we know in the movies casts no shadow. He saves Apollo 13 and Private Ryan.

Here is again, single-handedly beginning the end of the Cold War.

The movie circumspectly avoids showing Tom Hanks' Charlie Wilson actually touching the prostitutes in his hot tub or sharing the drugs being consumed in his limousine. You never actually see him take advantage of the daughter of the big campaign contributor who wants something from him. She just walks around his apartment without any pants.

This is the problem. Tom Hanks' sins are airbrushed, just like Charlie Wilson's.

On TV yesterday, John Travolta as a Bill Clinton-esque candidate struggled to find his moral compass in "Primary Colors," another Mike Nichols film but somehow more right. Travolta embraces his character flaws, insists on his heroes' imperfections. See "Michael."

We all fight wars, with ourselves and with some of the people who help describe our world. Owning up to the flaws that cause this conflict is perhaps the most heroic and transformative act of all.

Charlie Wilson ostensibly acted because he saw in a refugee camp the atrocities the Russians visited upon the Afghans, particularly on women and children. How much more heroic "Charlie Wilson's War" would have been if he had been portrayed not as a patriotic good ol' boy but as the lecherous politico he was, a man who stumbled into his own sense of compassion.

The story of "Charlie Wilson's War" needed telling but hardly addresses the irony that the Russian oppressors were replaced eventually by the Taliban oppressors who are among the groups now fighting the U.S. in Afghanistan. The truth is that the biggest chunk of the $3.5 billion the U.S. sent to help the Afghans fight the Russians went to a fundamentalist anti-American prime minister who collaborated with a Saudi engineer named Osama bin Laden and others to set up terrorist training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The original script bowed in the direction of this reality, but it lost out to a good story.

After leaving Congress, Charlie Wilson found work as a $360,000-a-year lobbyist for that beacon of liberty, the government of Pakistan.

The truth doesn't blink at flaws and minor chords.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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