Iraq, as everyone should know by now, was not the problem. When the U.S. was attacked on 9/11, the perpetrators were holed up in Afghanistan, sheltered by the brutal Taliban regime, which came to power largely because of America's bungled handling of the aftermath of that country's occupation by the Soviet Union. The Bush-Cheney regime's invasion of Iraq was a fraudulent diversion, and remains a tragic disaster.
In a fitting if acrid irony, Iraq has also played badly at the movies. We're just ending a season in which a series of highly touted dramas about the Iraq War and its domestic consequences have flopped both critically and commercially. Meanwhile, the real ground zero of our geopolitical distress, Afghanistan, like Freud's "return of the repressed," reappears as the setting and subject of two works that unequivocally deserve to be hailed as among the year's most fascinating, worthwhile and successful entertainments.
Based on bestselling books, Marc Forster's The Kite Runner and Mike Nichols' Charlie Wilson's War differ from each other in that the former is cast with unknowns and largely filmed in a foreign language (the subtitles alone make it a specialty release) while the latter is a big-budget production filled with top stars. Yet they're essentially much more alike than not, as prime examples of mainstream American moviemaking at its now all-too-rare best, bristling with storytelling energy, passionate, almost mythic characters, and a humanistic conviction that their narratives really matter.
Interestingly, the movies are complementary in their cultural viewpoints and their time frames. Charlie Wilson's War concerns Americans trying to understand and remedy the plight of Afghanistan during the period of the Soviet occupation, 1979-89. Bookending that temporal focus by conjuring an all-but-idyllic Kabul of the mid-'70s, and then leaping forward to the Taliban horrors of the past decade, The Kite Runner gives us Afghanistan from a native's perspective—although, significantly, both the novel's author, Khaled Hosseini, and his fictional alter ego are Afghans looking back on their homeland from the perspective of a couple of decades' residence in the U.S.
That alter ego, Amir (played as a grown-up by Khalid Abdalla), is a fledgling San Francisco novelist when he gets a phone call from a family friend that beckons him backward in memory. Recalling his childhood in Kabul, he remembers himself (Zekiria Ebrahami plays young Amir) as a fine-featured upper-class boy tortured by the thought that his gruff father, Baba (a fine performance by Taste of Cherry star Hemayoun Ershadi), considers him unmanly and responsible for his mother's death in childbirth.
The one reliable bright spot in Amir's world is his lifelong friendship with Hassan (Ahmad Khan), the son of his father's servant. The boys are separated not only by class but by ethnicity and religion: Amir's people are Sunni Pashtos who have long lorded it over the Shia Hazara minority, to which Hassan and his dad belong.
Yet these differences pale beside the affectionate bond that connects the boys. Amir reads heroic tales from the Shahnameh to the illiterate Hassan. They trade lines of dialogue from their favorite movie, The Magnificent Seven. And they are especially united in their dedication to the intensely competitive local sport of kite flying. Hassan has a knack for running after and finding untethered kites (hence the title).
The warmth of that friendship and the lovingly recalled Kabul where it transpires—a place of parks, parties, kabob stalls and Western hippies mixing with the locals—comprise only half of the engrossing emotional dynamic of the tale's early section. The other, much darker half concerns Amir's willingness to betray the innocence and trust shown him by Hassan, who is taunted and later raped by local bullies. Amir's cowardly acquiescence in this abuse may well reflect his pampered upbringing and troubled relationship with his father, but there's no excusing it; it's a terrible betrayal.
Encountering The Kite Runner for the first time, I was most surprised by the ferocious, unstinting self-accusation in the narrator's portrayal of his younger self. Almost biblical in its severity, it's hardly the stuff of most contemporary fiction. Yet it braids together the psychological and the social in ways that feel both penetrating and true, and it provides a powerful springboard for the rest of Amir's odyssey.
Childhood's idyll is brutally ended by the Soviet invasion. As they flee the country, Amir's father provides him an object lesson in the personal courage the boy so drastically lacks. In the U.S. thereafter, the dignified Baba is obliged to work in a gas station and to wonder at Amir's seemingly frivolous goal of becoming a writer. For his part, Amir remains a dutiful son and finds an attractive Afghan girl to marry.
In the tale's final section, the adult Amir returns to a war-ruined, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan on a mission that will allow him to pay homage to Hassan and, perhaps, summon the bravery that eluded him in childhood. Here, it's all too evident that author Hosseini was drawing on research and invention rather than on memory and personal experience; the story suddenly takes on the rushed theatrics of a thriller.
That resort to melodramatic contrivance does not, however, undercut the tale's essential power or deprive it of an emotionally effusive ending. Hosseini is a gifted storyteller of the Dickensian sort; a degree of overkill is part of the bargain. Fortunately, his strengths are both preserved and bolstered by David Benioff's supple screenplay and Marc Forster's adroit, sensitive direction.
As indicated by his Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction, the Swiss-reared Forster is a versatile young journeyman, not an idiosyncratic auteur. His international background and stylistic panache serve him well on The Kite Runner, which was shot largely in western China in the Dari Persian dialect (much credit to the filmmakers for not converting it all to English). Besides his skillful evocation of Afghan culture in different eras, Forster does a tremendous job with the film's young actors.
For all its fascination as a depiction of Afghanistan during its torturous recent history, and its deeply affecting portrayal of friendship and betrayal, The Kite Runner surely owes its enormous international success to a gorgeously spun story with a strong undercurrent of religious feeling. Ultimately, it is a tale of sin and redemption that links the ethical foundations of Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions in surprising ways.
When Hosseini's book describes Hassan as a lamb at the moment of his worst abuse, it knowingly links the Abraham-Isaac story to one of the famous appellations of Jesus. Yet the torment visited on the boy also recalls the martyr Hossein, whose death is the cornerstone of Shia tradition. This modern fiction by an Afghan-American thus creates a bridge not only between continents and cultures, but also between sacred vernaculars that too often are distorted into implements of division and oppression. In doing so, it accomplishes its own redemptive act of courage and witness.
In it own odd way, Charlie Wilson's War is also a tale of redemption. Only here the terms are strictly American and secular, and the tone is not lyrical, somber or self-accusatory, but boisterously, ingeniously comic.
How does one make a comedy out of the horror of Afghanistan under Soviet occupation? Mike Nichols, drawing on the book by 60 Minutes producer George Crile, accomplishes that hat trick by focusing on a trio of outlandish Americans who get drawn into the campaign to help Afghans free themselves. And Nichols improves his odds by having those characters played by Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The first time we see Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks), he's in a Las Vegas hot tub surrounded by strippers and cocaine. Back in Washington, he's got a bottle of liquor always within reach in an office staffed by bosomy beauties known as Charlie's Angels. A man in need of redemption, obviously.
Though he's a liberal, Charlie gets drawn toward the Afghan cause by a rich Texas right-wing crusader named Joanne Herring (Roberts, wearing a succession of gravity-defying wigs), his occasional patroness and paramour. The unfailingly assertive Herring is motivated by a deep-dyed anticommunism that's not part of Wilson's nature, but once he sees the dire situation of Afghans trying to resist a brutal occupation with 19th-century rifles, his bleary vision begins to be replaced by some focused indignation.
Wilson's main collaborator is a feisty, in-your-face CIA agent, Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman, wearing aviator glasses and his own gravity-defying wig), whose insubordination has caused him to be relegated to the Afghan desk. Realizing that the mujahedeen (Afghan insurgents) only stand a chance if they're given weapons that can best Soviet helicopters and tanks, Charlie and Gust, assisted by Joanne, soon embark on a behind-the scenes effort that takes them to Israel, Egypt and Pakistan, where some bizarrely unprecedented alliances are forged. Over the course of a decade, Wilson's congressional maneuvering gets the campaign's annual budget increased from five million to a billion dollars.
Mike Nichols' gifts as a social satirist, first displayed cinematically in The Graduate 40 years ago, are still needle-sharp here. The film was scripted by Aaron Sorkin, who's known for his own public battles with substance abuse problems as well as his TV work on The West Wing. Though Sorkin's screenplay occasionally falls into the showy rat-a-tat dialogue of sitcoms, it is mainly notable for conveying a lot of complicated political information in a way that's fast-paced, funny and relentlessly entertaining.
Like most great Hollywood comedies, of course, this isn't primarily a film of ideas but of character. And Charlie Wilson's War matches its wonderfully eccentric trio of main characters with the expertly engaging performances of Hanks, Roberts and Hoffman; it's the kind of movie that needs stars as much as they need it.
As in The Kite Runner, there's a name that's never heard in this account of Afghanistan's modern ordeal: Osama bin Laden. We're not reminded that he was among those mujahedeen whose success was effectively guaranteed by Charlie Wilson's campaign. Still, while the film's ending may be scored as too abrupt, it does make an essential point: Following the departure of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, America dropped the ball in restoring security to the country, with dire consequences that are still haunting us today.
The Kite Runner and
Charlie Wilson's War
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