Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Written by Robert Carlock, based on a book by Kim Barker
111 minutes, rated MA 15+
Tina Fey plays a war correspondent in Afghanistan. Is that a new kind of story? Actually it could be. There are very few movies about women in war reporting, even though women have reported wars since at least the mid-19th century. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (WTF, get it?) is even more unusual in that it’s a comedy. That means risking what power the story might have.
The comedy comes directly from the source book, by American newspaper correspondent Kim Barker. She was South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009, her first overseas posting. Back in the US, and missing the war zone, she wrote The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Michiko Kakutani gave it a glowing review in the New York Times in which she said Barker depicted herself as ‘a sort of Tina Fey character’. That drew the attention of the real Tina Fey, who optioned the book with Lorne Michaels. Robert Carlock, writer and producer of 30 Rock, adapted the book. Barker has said in interviews that she did not read Carlock’s script, even when they sent it to her. She had signed away all rights, so she didn’t see the point.
Probably just as well. In the movie, Kim Baker (without the r) is now a TV news journalist. Margot Robbie plays Tanya Vanderpoel, an experienced Australian correspondent who’s overjoyed to have another woman in Kabul. Readers of the book will not find anyone called Tanya. She’s made up, for reasons that become obvious later, in the film’s quiet observations about feminism under duress.
Making Baker a TV person has dramatic sense, because it forces her closer to the action. She needs footage and she surprises herself that she is brave enough to get it. That earns respect from the American soldiers with whom she is embedded – particularly the taciturn but funny General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton, in another perfect cameo). It also allows the script to air some grievances about the American media. Afghanistan no longer rates, one boss tells her.
The film avoids any overt political statements about the US presence there, and lops off the part of the book dealing with Pakistan, as too unwieldy. Instead, we follow Baker’s blooding in war reporting, her path from newbie to risk junkie, her relationships with other correspondents, both sexual and not, and her overall loss of the person she thought she was. This is deliberate: she goes to war to ‘blow up’ her old life, which immediately takes the story in the direction of self-obsession and self-discovery – both less than worthy considerations in the context of a whole country’s misery.
Even so, the film-makers see that danger: Baker’s most important relationship is not with the Scottish photographer who becomes her lover (Martin Freeman), but with Fahim Amadzai (Christopher Abott), her fixer and cultural guide. They become extremely close, but she cannot even touch his arm, in public or private.
One of the main ideas is that war makes the correspondents crazy for love – hence the musical bedrooms of the ‘Fun House’, a dormitory-like hotel in Kabul. That’s not new in films about men at war; it is newer when the main protagonists are women. Baker is shocked at Tanya’s directness: can I shag your hunky security guy (who’s played by Australian actor Stephen Peacocke), she asks?
With so many ideas in play, the film is never dull. Sometimes it’s also funny, perceptive and nuanced. Things get deeper and dirtier as it rolls on, but not really clearer, in terms of purpose. The tension between a ‘star-driven journey of personal discovery’, versus an actual film about war reporting in Afghanistan is never resolved. The desire to remain apolitical kills off any chance of it becoming a great film about journalists at work.
Some idealism might have helped. There is no cause to fight for here. They are all there for their careers, the excitement, the fun, the bang. There is no altruism, nor even a satisfying cynicism, such as in the war films made after Vietnam. Maybe that is simply true, but it doesn’t make for a great dramatic experience, as good as Tina Fey is in the role.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot