By Max Filipson
BU News Service
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is adapted from Kim Barker’s memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” It tells the story of inexplicably name-changed Kim Baker (Tina Fey), a tired and numb network news producer who decides to go to Afghanistan and cover the War on Terror in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. She arrives to a world of chaos filled with party-hard journalists, a state tearing itself to pieces and soldiers forgotten by the people and country they serve. This is the Kabubble, in the film’s lingo.
She quickly develops a rapport with fellow members of the press: Fahim (Christopher Abbot) her local fixer and translator; the only other Western female reporter, Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), who introduces Kim to the alcohol-drugs-and-sex bacchanalia of Kabul; and foul-mouthed Scottish photojournalist Iain McKelpie (Martin Freeman), devotee of the Kabubble.
It doesn’t take Kim long to find her place and enjoy her new life in Kabul. She manages to shoot combat footage during an embed with some Marines. She secures exclusive interviews with government official Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina) and suffers his awkward and unwanted sexual advances. She parties hard across the city.
What follows is a movie that could have been “The Right Stuff” with journalists instead of astronauts. Test pilots fought to climb a ziggarut as righteous carriers of the Right Stuff. Journalists vie to climb the ladder as enterprising reporters of True Life Stories. Test pilots indulge in the Fighter Code of Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving and Driving & Balling. Journalists live the Kabubble life of Reporting & Drinking and Drinking & Dancing and Dancing & Balling. The worse the situation a pilot saves the plane from, the cooler he is. The closer to death a reporter finds themself and makes it out with a story, the cooler he or she is.
But this is not what the film is about; it is merely seasoning. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” instead, tells a story of the conflict between the immediacy of life in a war zone and the normal desires for family, friends and a stable career. The film discusses the adrenaline junkie-like aspects of war reporters and their actions, juxtaposing this with Fahim’s desires for normality. There is an existential message to be found, but the viewer will have to go deep to find it. Maybe deeper than the creators intended. Instead the conflict is muddled by unnecessary subplots and stilted narrative rhythm.
What the film does very well is the feminist angle. The two main leads are female. One of the best scenes in the entire film is all about women’s rights and the sexualization of women.
Kim and her team decide to go to Kandahar, the spiritual center of the Taliban and an arch-conservative province. Kim needs more than her standard shawl for this trip and buys a blue niqab. The following scene savages every male-gaze sex scene ever shot, slow motion close-ups and all. To top it all off, Fahim says something like, “Welcome to life in the blue prison.”
For all its flaws, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is still a competent film. Some aspects are better done than others, and it’s a shame the central conflict of the film isn’t one of them. An audience that can live with some minor frustration over missed opportunities in return for witty dialogue, occasionally on-point social commentary and Freeman with a Scottish accent should see this film.
Author’s note: There is a point to be made about whitewashing in this film. The two main Afghan characters are both played by Americans of Mediterranean descent. I have refrained from making this point after a series of tweets by Kim Barker. They can be found here.