Couch Potato Briefing: Covert Ops, Cricket and Learning from Lawrence

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Global Spin’s five weekend movie rental recommendations to bring you up to speed on the week’s events, compiled by Tony Karon and Ishaan Tharoor.

Charlie Wilson’s War

In a week where — thanks to the stubborn refusal of Muammar Gaddafi to disappear in a puff of eyeliner —  Washington’s fancy has turned once again to arming the enemies of our enemies, it’s time to dust off Mike Nichols’ camp rendering of the true tale of Texas congressman Charlie Wilson’s efforts to get weapons to the Afghan mujahedeen. Stirred by the unfairness of the fight that pitched lightly armed guerrillas against the lumbering armor and heavily-armed helicopter gunships of the Red Army after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, Wilson (archly portrayed by Tom Hanks) and his friend Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) begin agitating for arming the rebels. Their efforts eventually result in the largest program of covert warfare in US history, helping the Afghan mujahedeen (among them, as we now know, hundreds of young Arab volunteers led by Osama bin Laden) to drive out the Soviets. After that, the U.S. loses interest in Afghanistan as the rebels turn on one another, while the Arab volunteers launched a terror campaign against America and its allies in the Muslim world, the consequences of which landed many thousands of U.S. ground troops back in Afghanistan, where they’ve been since 2001. A cautionary tale for this week’s Libya debate? – T.K.


More than a billion TV viewers in all corners of the planet watched India’s defeat of Pakistan on Wednesday, in a cricket World Cup semifinal. Despite the neighbors’ decades of enmity and war, the obsession with cricket is an essential feature of national identity on both sides of the partitioned border, incessantly invoked as a point of commonality between the two, alongside the countries’ shared language, histories and love of spicy curries and sweet milky chai. For a taste of the subcontinent’s passion for the game, try the Bollywood rags-to-riches tale Iqbal, depicting the idea of cricket-as-road out of poverty for  young men in South Asia. In societies that remain starkly tiered by class and opportunity, cricket is the equivalent golden ticket that basketball represents in the American inner-city or baseball is to the Dominican Republic. And, of course, being a creation of Bollywood, the film’s titular protagonist —a Muslim in Hindu-majority India—sees his dreams turn into reality.  – I.T.

Lawrence of Arabia

The continuing upheavals in the Middle East have prompted much handwringing among Western pundits, many  cautioning against celebrating the revolutions and fretting over what may follow in some countries  if the people really do get to choose their political future. Sensing trouble, some pundits even distinguish between “real” countries and “fake” ones in the Middle East, implying that the Arab Spring in some places was an inevitable consequence of colonial cartography rather than a feat of courageous striving for dignity in the face of despotism. A few even insist that the monarchies of the Gulf are somehow more “authentic”, and their regimes therefore more durable, than the embattled secular post-colonial states from Algeria across to Syria.  But many of those monarchies were themselves installed and propped up by European colonial powers. To understand the history of Western intervention shaping the countries the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, it’s worth revisiting the legendary orientalist T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Eminently in the know and packing heat as well, Lawrence was instrumental in the construction of the modern “Middle East” to  suit Western purposes, amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the course of World War I and its aftermath. And, of course, it’s a gorgeous wide-angled epic of classic technicolor cinema. – I.T.

Torn Curtain

The sudden and unexpected flight of Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi’s foreign minister, former intelligence chief and longtime fixer to Britain’s Farnborough airport  reminds us of that old Cold War standard: The defection flick. And there’s probably none finer that Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, in which American rocket scientist (really, that his job title!) Michael Armstrong (played by a young Paul Newman) defects to East Germany, where he is joined by his assistant and fiance, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews). But Armstrong’s “defection” is in fact a ruse, aimed at getting access to Soviet bloc missile secrets, and the movie becomes a taut thriller of the sort that Hitch does so well. Hopefully, Moussa Koussa’s defection is a tale with no Hitchcockian twist. – T.K.


It may seem Mike Nichols week on the Couch Potato Briefing, but 1983’s Silkwood is another timely look at the nuclear industry in a week where the terrifying effects of radiation from a stricken Japanese reactor complex are only just beginning to make themselves known. Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) works at a plant manufacturing nuclear fuel rods for use in reactors, when she becomes ill after being exposed to radiation along with co-workers. When she discovers that her employers are seeking to cover up the the incident, she gathers evidence and contacts the New York Times, but is killed in a mysterious car accident before she can relay it. In a week in which it became clear that a number of the heroic Japanese plant workers are likely to die as a result of their exposure to radiation, Silkwood is a grim reminder that it’s the working stiffs, not the owners, who pay the ultimate price when things go wrong. – T.K.