“Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot” is a dramedy about a female journalist in Afghanistan from 2003-2006. It is based on the memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Kim Barker. The movie assures us it is “based on a true story”. It was directed by the team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. The movie was a pet project of Tina Fey who was interested in Barker’s story early on after someone mentioned to her that she would be ideal for the role. The movie was made by her production company and produced by mentor Lorne Michaels.
The movie opens with a cocaine fueled party in Kabul in 2006. The partiers are journalists blowing off steam. They are interrupted by a nearby explosion. At this point the film drops back to 2003 to start our heroines arc. Kay (Fey) is a network news peon who decides to volunteer for reporting from Afghanistan because she qualifies as “unmarried and childless”. All she has is a steady boyfriend who is supportive of her career move. They can make it work. Sure, why not? Before you can say cancel the wedding plans, she is corkscrew landing at Kabul International Airport (KIA – get it?) to avoid missiles. She is assigned an interpreter/fixer named Fahim (Christopher Abbott). No Afghan actors available in Santa Fe?
Kay is introduced to the denizens of the frat house the journalists live in. This boys club includes one other female named Tanya (Margot Robbie) who does not want the audience to go to the trouble of discovering that she is a male war correspondent sexually, so she comes right out and asks Kim if she can sleep with her security detail. She suggests Kay take advantage of the fact that women who are marginally sexy in the States are 10s in Afghanistan. This movie might have a great effect on American women booking trips to Kabul. (Especially those that consider Tina Fey to be a dog.)
Kay’s first embed is at a forward operational base. She does the requisite “where you from soldier?” interviews and becomes friends with a Marine who insists he does not believe in chambering his weapon. This bizarre inclusion in the montage will come back as a major plot point. She also strikes up a relationship with a General Hollander (Billy Bob Thornton) who admonishes her to not take advantage of her sudden rise on the female rating scale to have sex with his Marines. By this time in the war, a typical mission is to investigate the blowing up of a well in a village. On the way back, their convoy is ambushed and Kay uses the sudden rush of adrenalin to get film of a Javelin missile taking out a Toyota Taliban tank. This act of balls earns her the generals respect and the explosion earns her air time.
The second embed also involves a sabotaged well, but this time it’s not the Taliban to blame. It’s a Tina Fey movie so we need to have some social commentary of the female rights variety. This is followed by a trip to a school destroyed because of its female students. As time goes on she goes from “what the hell have I gotten myself into?” to “when do I get my next fix of whizzing shrapnel?” She has also evolved amorally and strikes up a relationship with the previously “not in a million years” rake Iain (Martin Freeman). Their relationship has as bright a future as Afghanistan. And her relationship with girlfriend Tanya is equally solid. A BFF (bitch friend fortheduration) wouldn’t be as competitive as a male colleague, would she? Nor would your male lover, right?
Some will make their decision to watch this movie based on their feelings toward Tina Fey. In my case, I love her, so it was a no-brainer. If you consider her to be a raging liberal feminist, chill out because she is not using the movie as a forum for her loathsome views. The movie is surprisingly light on political commentary. It does not question our involvement in Afghanistan. It does not even question why we are still there. Instead, there is a theme of America losing interest in the war. If anything the movie is pro-military. All of the Marines are positive characters, including one who gives his legs for his country. In another surprise, General Hollanek is super cool. His periodic appearances really juice up the movie. Although their relationship starts predictably rocky, he turns out to a leader who is willing to adjust his views when confronted by new information provided by Kim. He also gets some kickass lines. When Kim asks him how the war is going, he describes it as like “fucking a gorilla, you keep going until the gorilla wants to stop.” The movie is also pro-journalism, but it does portray war correspondents as stereotypically hard partiers (like WWI fighter pilots). It updates the cliché of journalists being ruthlessly competitive for scoops to include female war correspondents. Throw in a bit of the anything for a scoop mentality.
“Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot” aims at the easy target of network news, but it does not hit the target with an RPG. It is more subtle than that. The two biggest gets by Kim and Tanya both involve explosions caught on film - with the definite implication that no explosion, no air time. However, when Kay confronts her boss about lack of coverage of Afghanistan, her boss logically explains that if the public is not interested… The movie does not so much criticize as state facts. Hopefully the movie will remind the public that we still have troops in the god-forsaken country. And the gorilla still insists on being fucked.
The movie is well made. The Santa Fe sets look like a Middle Eastern country. There are some attempts at local color. Fahim gets a Muslim wedding. Kay dresses in a burkha (“the blue prison") to infiltrate a medieval “discussion” of modern technology. The movie also makes token efforts to give us a taste of Afghan culture. There is a running joke that if you put a turban on Kay, she would be a mighty fine boy - worthy of intercourse with an Afghan leader. Speaking of jokes, the movie is more drama than comedy, but there are many humorous lines. The movie eschews slapstick. Although it’s closest equivalent in war movies is “MASH”, it is not as broad or subversive. It is also not as episodic. “WTF” has more of a traditional storyline and this is a weakness because some of the plot is cliché and predictable. Since it’s been a while since we had a significant addition to the war journalism subgenre (and none on Afghanistan), the clichés are not that stale. Another similar weakness is the predictability. All four of the principal relationships end as you would expect. This makes the movie more comfortable than daring. But maybe this was because they were so true to the book. Just kidding.
A strength of the film is the cast. Whatever your visceral reaction to Fey, she is quite good in a mainly dramatic role. That does not mean she does not showcase her famous snarky brand of humor. Robbie is good as her slutty gal pal and gives one a chance to ponder if the Fox News bunnies were similarly bedded when they embedded. Freeman is fun as the wolfish MacKelpie. Thornton comes off best as General Hollanek. The character could have easily been a caricature. It says a lot for Fey that she would let him steal their scenes and allow him to get some of the best lines. His character also balances the strong female characters.
“Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot” (good, if inaccurate, change of title) is a worthy addition to the war journalism subgenre. It does have two brief combat scenes to help it qualify as a war movie. The Marine raid to rescue a hostage is especially well done and different enough from the night vision/POV style currently in vogue. As Kay points out to Hollanek, America needs a reminder that it’s not just the Special Forces that conduct raids. I won’t complain that the whole hostage scenario was probably invented to get some more action into the film.
GRADE = B