As talk of “cold civil war” heats up, I decided to turn on, tune in, and drop out with two flicks set in the days of the old Iron Curtain. Even through the lens of pop culture that favors them, it can be seen that liberals and liberalism always have been fundamentally incapable not only of fully confronting communism, but also of understanding the conditions that have made the siren song of Marx so appealing, then and now.
If the titular character of Aaron Sorkin’s “Charlie Wilson’s War“ didn’t once exist, he would have to have been invented.
Charles Nesbitt Wilson was a playboy, a socialite, and, as if by accident, a member of the United States House of Representatives. “Good Time Charlie,” as he came to be known, was a man made for a Hollywood. Somewhere between a congressman and Hugh Heffner, one could be forgiven for finding the escapades in the 2007 biopic—Tom Hanks takes the leading role—larger than life. But as it turns out, the movie gets most of Wilson’s story right.
The film centers on Wilson’s involvement in the program to enable the mujahideen in their struggle against the crushing heel of communism. There is a lot of cocaine, booze, and nudity in-between.
Portrayed as sympathetic toward Muslims then under the boot of a totalitarian, atheistic ideology, Wilson is, ironically, a religious skeptic himself in the film. Though it is unclear if Wilson was in reality a doubting Thomas, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin provides us with a self-described “liberal” congressman who looks most distraught when surrounded by refugees of war or Christians.
Wilson chides his flame, Joanne Herring (played by the beautiful Julia Roberts) for her overtly Christian rhetoric on the warpath. More than once in the film, Wilson and his partner in crime, a spook named Gust Avrakotos played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, discuss the grave potentialities of ascribing religious overtones to the war against communism.
There is not a little irony in philistine Wilson’s role as the hero in the war against the atheistic forces of communism. He thanks Herring for saving him from the “pro-lifers,” lunatics it would seem, and appears visibly disturbed when Representative “Doc” Long (played by Ned Beattie) rallies Middle Easterners with what essentially is a call for jihad against communism.
Nevertheless, Wilson’s fear of faith doesn’t stop him from ordering weapons in bulk with which the mujahideen can finally “shoot down those helicopters.” With this, Sorkin eagerly draws a direct line from American intervention against the Soviets to the September 11 attacks, and this has been the source of not a little debate. According to Fred Ikle, President Reagan’s undersecretary of defense, the CIA initially was reluctant to provide mujahideen fighters with anti-air missiles, while Wilson himself was in reality “lukewarm” on the issue. Osama Bin Laden, moreover, never received resources or training from the CIA. Nor was he involved in direct action activities until after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989. But perhaps the eventual fate of the United States should give us pause to consider Walter Lippmann’s warning in 1947, that the United States should not expend its “energies” and “substance” on “dubious and unnatural” allies such as the mujahideen. Sorkin, of course, would probably find Lippmann’s statement intolerant, racist, and Islamophobic today.
The film surprisingly shows in full detail the brutality of Moscow’s Third World strategy. We get a glimpse of what George F. Kennan meant when he wrote that the Kremlin was driven to fill “every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power” by any means necessary.
If, as Mr. Kennan said, the Russians looked forward to a “duel of infinite duration,” Americans enabled the mujahideen to make it at least a costly one in that Graveyard of Empires.
Still, Sorkin ends the film on an ominous note with an exchange between Wilson and Avrakotos that foreshadows September 11. Wilson tries and fails to secure funding through Congress for a school in a war-torn village. But the Americans are too greedy, too conservative as it were, to heed liberal Wilson’s desperate plea to educate the children. Education, insists Wilson—or perhaps Sorkin—is the promise of a better future for children in the Middle East. And yet, in reality, Bin Laden’s good education and cosseted upbringing only made him more dangerous and more resentful of the West. And, of course, early in the film Wilson encounters a Pakistani military officer who claims to have attended Oxford and, like Bin Laden, only seems to resent Westerners.
Holy wars are often launched by those eager to place the blame for a society’s troubles on a single group. Sorkin shows us that holy wars can be secular, too.
I paired Sorkin’s sordid affair with Goodbye, Lenin!, set not long after the events of Charlie Wilson’s War.
Directed and written by Wolfgang Becker, the German tragicomedy is something of a hidden gem. The main character is Alex Kerner, played by Daniel Brühl. The story revolves around Kerner’s family and their lives as citizens of the German Democratic Republic during a time of great transition.
One evening, Kerner participates in a protest that is violently broken up by East German police. His mother, Christiane, played by Katrin Saß, faints and falls into a coma at the sight of Alex being arrested by plainclothes police officers, or “Stasi.”
During her coma, the Berlin Wall comes down and East Germany, along with the Kerners, are thrust rapidly Westward. The forces of capitalism surge in as the tide of socialism recedes—for better and for worse.
The film shows that not all East Germans were happy with the transition away from socialism. Though few seriously doubt that life under the GDR was repressive today, it is a strength of the film that it captures the perspective of the Germans who, in some ways, preferred life under socialism. The film accurately portrays how East Germany was hit hard by the mass exodus of human capital following the toppling of the wall. Even today, East Germany trails the West in virtually every economic metric available. In this regard, which is one of the most important aspects of the film, Becker is faithful to the truth. Yes, the East is better off today; no, it was and is not without pain. For as Ben Mauk writes in the New Yorker, “regional inequalities persist” in the East, “and people struggle to find work. With Germany facing the threat of another recession, it does not seem likely that the gap between east and west will close anytime soon.”
The sudden retreat of socialism also plunged the East into the search for something to fill the void that socialism left, thus we see the incipient hedonism and materialism in the backdrop of Goodbye, Lenin! Becker skillfully communicates the zeitgeist of “Ostalgie” (Eastern, or “Ost,” nostalgia) in an often hilarious coming-of-age tale. Kerner becomes the man his absentee father should have been while taking care of his at first comatose, then awake but bedridden mother. The running gag of the film is Kerner’s attempt to hide the fact so much has changed in the months his mother was in a coma, for fear that the sudden shock of it all will kill her.
But Kerner’s scheme takes on a life of its own. It becomes increasingly clear that the Potemkin village he creates is for himself as much as it is for his mother—eventually more so for himself. Everything Kerner does to gradually move his mother toward the truth can be understood as Kerner coming to terms with the collapse of the GDR. The East is pushed forward by the West, but Kerner thrusts back into the past, haunting abandoned apartments for relics left by those who fled the East, desperately reconstructing that bygone world. The present becomes the lived lie that socialism once was. By the end of the film, Christiane becomes secretly aware of the truth, yet continues to play along for her son’s sake. She sees in him that whatever hope she had that socialism might provide for a better future could not exist in a repressive state—she suggests just before her death that she had always lived and regretted that lie—but instead in the love of her children.
Watching Goodbye, Lenin!, I think of my friends who grew up in East Germany. “Mikhail,” we’ll call him, whose father served in the East German army; “Masha,” whose brother was, after hospital staff claimed he had been stillborn, carted off, never to be seen or even buried. Under liberal democracy, however, children are only sequestered by the state when parents refuse to go along with gender ideology.
In all seriousness, the socialist practice of abducting children was common then; the lucky managed to reconnect with their “dead” relatives after the wall came down. Masha was not among them.
The beauty of Becker’s film is that in his characters, real people like Mikhail and Masha come through. People who survived the crush of socialism, then the capitalist-consumerist explosion. People for whom in the end “family is everything.” The family, first subjected to the jackboot of socialism against its throat; then liberalism and capitalism, threatening the family with the disintegrating forces of individualism and hedonism.
Sorkin’s boozing, philandering, philistine Wilson, by comparison, is unrelatable. He is a quintessential member of the ruling class, a manager occasionally taking pity on the plebs enough to help them in the way that he thinks is best for them; but oh so careful not to dirty his hands with their religion and quaint customs.
Both films provide an interesting perspective of a great transitional period. In both films, the East (or Middle East) meets the West and what follows is complicated. Between the two, Goodbye, Lenin! is the superior cold war film, however.
Unlike Charlie Wilson’s War, which is more like a cudgel against the enemies of liberalism, Becker’s film is a vehicle for deeper reflection on issues that are now more pressing than ever. It makes us question the effects of capitalism on the family, culture, and morality. It shows us the allure of socialism, and the reality behind the mask of compassion that socialism wears. It shows us why liberalism has created conditions conducive to, and even accommodative of, communism. Liberalism fields secular, rational, and scientific weapons in a fundamentally spiritual war against the materialist ideology of communism—which itself is secular, rational, and scientific.
Becker’s film, moreover, calls us back to the words of a cold warrior—Whittaker Chambers.
Chambers was a key figure in the case against Alger Hiss, a State Department official who was accused of being a communist spy and convicted of perjury in connection with that charge in 1950. In his memoir, Chambers wrote of leaving communism behind: “The world I was returning to seemed, by contrast, a graveyard. It was, in fact, the same world I had abandoned as hopeless when I joined the Communist Party in 1925. . . . I knowingly chose the side of probable defeat [by leaving the Communist Party].” Chambers believed that the West eventually would succumb to some strain of Marxism or another. An inevitability, he feared, because the West did not seriously consider or understand the same questions posed in Becker’s film. “Almost nothing that I have observed, or that has happened to me since,” wrote Chambers, “has made me think that I was wrong about that forecast.” Becker’s film asks us to consider the questions that, if unasked and unanswered, Chambers feared would deliver the world to the “totalitarian darkness” of Marxism.
Anyone who is still celebrating the liberal-capitalist “defeat” of communism needs to reckon with the field of Democratic presidential candidates; subject themselves to scold Greta Thunberg as she calls for Stalinist central planning to “fight” climate change; and must explain why virtually every mainstream media and academic institution is lurching us toward totalitarian darkness.