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1:14:29 Good Versus Evil

Charlie Wilson’s Emotional War: A Turning Point in the Fight for Afghanistan

By Melissa Leuzzi, with comment by Matthew Holley

[1] In Charlie Wilson’s War, Wilson travels to Pakistan to meet with President Zia and his aides to discuss the situation in Afghanistan as it relates to Pakistan and the United States. Wilson brings Bonnie Bach, his administrative assistant, with him on the trip to meet the President. Bach is a key player in the scene and is portrayed by Amy Adams. At the conclusion of the meeting, President Zia informs Wilson that he will be stopping at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Pakistan before returning to the United States. Wilson and Bach, exhausted by the trip, appear reluctant but immediately agree to make the trip to the camps before returning home. The scene that includes Wilson in the camps is both devastating and crucial to the development of the film. The scene is deliberately written and shot to inspire sympathy for the Afghans and explain why Wilson became so emotionally attached to his cause. Though short, the scene is both powerful and important within the context of the entire film.

[2] In terms of historical accuracy, there are several minor changes made in the refugee camp scene that do not exactly represent what happened during Wilson’s first visit to Pakistan. Perhaps most importantly, Bonnie Bach’s character was actually a male in reality. Wilson’s administrative assistant at the time was Charlie Schnabel, not Bonnie Bach. It is unclear whether the choice to switch Schnabel with Bach was related to industry pressure, as Amy Adams is a popular and well-known actress, or if it was the decision of Aaron Sorkin and Mike Nichols. It is also important to note that during Wilson’s first visit with President Zia, he was indeed sent to visit with refugees by the President. Zia’s motivation both in life and in the film, obviously, was to rally Wilson behind the cause and pull at his heartstrings. However, in the film, Wilson visits an outdoor refugee camp in which hundreds of thousands of individuals live. When Wilson actually visited refugees in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he typically did so within the refugee hospitals. Thus, though Wilson met with many similar people, it was within a different context that he came to know them. The filmmakers most likely changed this detail because outdoors they could include not only images of the victims but also the scope of the damage and the enormous number of people uprooted from their homes. In this way, the filmmakers were able to show the scale of the problem at large, not just the extent of the victims’ injuries.

[3] Technique in the refugee camp scene is critical to the understanding of the scene’s importance. One such technique is the use of children. Injured children are the focus of the refugee camp scene because it is particularly heartbreaking to see innocent children maimed for the sake of politics. The refugee camp scene spotlights several children who have been killed, burned, or otherwise disfigured while trying to pick up mines and bombs designed to look like candy or small toys on the ground. Not only does this illustrate the grisly nature of the Soviet and Afghan conflict, but it shows the ways in which children were targeted directly. The scene also includes a shot of a woman crying over a grave, presumably that of her dead child. This shot is also purposefully emotional, as the filmmakers clearly intend to pull the audience into the conflict and engender support for Wilson’s actions in the remaining scenes in the film. Another important technique used by the filmmakers is the shot of the refugee camp that pans out and continues to move backward, eventually showing the entire camp. This shot is intended to demonstrate the camp’s size, so that the viewer can imagine the hundreds of thousands of families with stories similar to those told by the few characters in the scene. In a sense, this shot multiplies the effect of what the viewer has seen and heard from one or two mothers and a couple of children. The viewer can then imagine the true scope of the tragedy. (see comment by Matthew Holley)

[4] Within the film, the refugee camp scene is significant and serves several purposes. The refugee camp scene allows filmmakers to convey the scope of the problem in Afghanistan without losing the interest or passion of the audience. The scene does an excellent job of showing viewers how many families were affected by the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. The sheer number of these refugees is extraordinary, and this scene shows just how many individuals were confined to this one camp in Pakistan. The scene also illustrates the gravity of the situation, as it is clear that families can only survive in the camp’s conditions for so long. The shots include families who live in tents, sleep on the hard dirt ground, and fight for food, water, and other provisions. Through such shots, the audience is able to understand the urgency involved in the Afghan cause, as time is an important factor. The scene is also vital, because it portrays the atrocities and horrors of the Soviet invasion. The injuries and ailments that plague the refugees are quite egregious and demonstrate the extent of the conflict on the ground. As such, the scene invokes a need to act among audience members. This scene helps to rally viewers around the Afghans and Wilson. The events of the scene illustrate the intense need for action and enlist each member of the audience to support the cause.

[5] If nothing else, the scene helps to explain Wilson’s unflinching support for the Afghan cause. Wilson, in life and in the film, leaves Pakistan with a renewed sense of responsibility to the Afghan people and the government in Pakistan. After seeing the camps, the Afghan situation becomes more than a simple fight against Communism for the Congressman. To Wilson, Afghanistan not only represents a key Cold War battleground but also a home for millions who have been uprooted from their nation, abused, and slaughtered. Because the fight takes on this element of human interest, it becomes both a moral and political struggle for Wilson. The refugee camp scene is crucial in explaining this particular revelation for Wilson. It serves as the turning point in the film, the point at which Wilson becomes not only politically but emotionally involved. This scene also helps to explain Wilson’s interactions with other characters in the film such as Harold Holt and Doc Long. Wilson’s sense of urgency and responsibility is not always shared by those around him, and Wilson’s emotional visit to the refugee camp helps to justify his steadfast dedication to the cause. The refugee camp scene is also reminiscent in one of the film’s final scenes, as Wilson petitions his committee for money to help rebuild an Afghan school. Wilson is still emotionally attached to the cause while others, who were only involved politically, cannot understand his continued dedication to the Afghan people.

[6] The refugee camp scene is a crucial turning point in the film and helps the audience to understand both the Soviet/Afghan conflict and Wilson as a character. The technique with which the film is shot enhances the emotional elements involved, thus creating a scene that engenders sympathy and support among viewers. The scene is also important for Wilson’s character development. Within the larger context of the film, the refugee camp scene is one without which the film would fall short.


Matthew Holley 8/5/10

Yes, the scene at the refugee camp definitely has a major impact on Charlie’s motivation to help the Afghans fight back against the monstrous Russians. When this film was released, it was criticized by some because there didn’t seem to be a consensus as to how America should feel over Charlie pumping all that money into freedom fighters, which would end up leading into militant groups like the Taliban. The refugee camp seems to absolve Congressman Wilson of any negative judgment. The gender switch of Wilson’s aid could also be rationalized by Bonnie Bach’s involvement in this scene. Bach wanders around the camp like Charlie, but her mothering and nurturing nature causes her to directly engage with the people of the camp on an intimate level.