In Time, Tom Hanks Remembers Knowing Afghanistan Was a Vietnam
Always eager to promote another Hollywood film that casts a snarky eye on American foreign policy, Time magazine interviewed Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman about Charlie Wilson’s War, a new movie about a conservative Texas Democratic Congressman who secured funding for the Afghan rebels, written by liberal West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin. Hanks recalled that when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, he just knew it was the beginning of the Soviets’ Vietnam, that "They have made a mistake equal to anything wrong America has done." Moral equivalence with the Soviets? Still in vogue in Hollywood in 2007.
Reasons to be skeptical? At the time, Hanks was 23 and had yet to get his big break as Kip-slash-Buffy in the ABC sitcom Bosom Buddies; and Hanks also suggested the Soviets freshly took over Hungary in 1956, instead of merely keeping the Soviet lid on the country. The interview began with Time’s Belinda Luscombe celebrating her own ignorance about American support for Afghan rebels:
TIME: A lot of people probably don't know much about this story, and I just thought the mujahedin were feisty Afghans who beat the Russians by themselves. Were you aware of it at the time?
TOM HANKS: Well, I remember the invasion. I remember President Carter coming out, and there was a big dramatic thing on TV: the Soviet Union has invaded Afghanistan--we were going to cancel the Olympics, and we weren't going to go to Moscow in 1980. I didn't realize what the covert action of the CIA had done, and whatnot.
JULIA ROBERTS: I was 13. I missed all of this.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: Yeah, I was in junior high in this whole thing. I definitely missed the idea that there was a covert operation going on.
ROBERTS (joking): Did I say I was 13? Sorry, I meant I was 3.
HANKS: I remember thinking that the Soviet Union had done something really stupid, but it was a sign of that classic Soviet aggression machine, the same way that they'd taken over Hungary in 1956 and gone into Czechoslovakia in 1968--that it was those robots that showed up on Lenin's Tomb every May Day. And I thought, They have made a mistake equal to anything wrong America has done. I remember thinking that it could turn into their Vietnam.
Later in the interview, Hanks worked up a good burst of steam running away from the idea that this is going to be another liberal anti-war film that flops:
TIME: This is a movie that makes people think about America and what it has done, especially in the Middle East, and there have been quite a few of those recently, and audiences have not been that drawn to them. Will people go to this one?
HOFFMAN: God, I hope they do.
HANKS: This isn't about Iraq.
TIME: Well, none of them are really about Iraq.
HANKS: Oh, no, I think you're wrong. I think some of them are very specifically about Iraq, and I don't know if you can make a war movie about Iraq until we have some distance on what has happened in Iraq because I don't think you can make a fake movie by going to Marrakech or Death Valley and putting guys in desert commando outfits and having them shoot at extras with special-effects helicopters flying around and have that be more insightful than what I can get off of YouTube by typing in "combat footage from Iraq." Charlie Wilson's War is about something happening in 1980. I'm going to lay claim to the fact that we actually have some distance and perspective now.
In the end, the film wasn't liberal enough for Newsweek critic David Ansen.
Of course, hanging over this ironic tale is the deeper historical irony—that many of the "good guy" rebels Charlie is funding (and we're cheering) will become our mortal enemies. At the end of this story, any informed viewer knows, lies big-time blowback. Surprisingly, Nichols and Sorkin play this trump card timidly. Is this admirable restraint or cold feet? Are they afraid of spoiling the feel-good uplift of Charlie's victory with the harsh downdraft of history? It's as if "Titanic" ended with a celebratory shipboard banquet, followed by a postscript: by the way, it sank.