Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
The US fiasco’s in Iraq and Afghanistan, military misadventures as tragic as they were poorly executed, have already provided us with a litany of books/true life stories turned film adaptations, some of which, have been true critical and award season darlings. But for every The Hurt Locker there is a Zero Dark Thirty, for every Generation Kill there is an American Sniper; for every decent story from those wars out there, there is a poor one, or one overpraised to an extent that is truly baffling.
But one thing that screen depictions of the Middle-Eastern wars have largely lacked, at least in my experiences, is a civilian focus. Enter Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, an adaptation of Kim Barker’s biography The Taliban Shuffle, with a fairly stand-out cast if not quite a stand-out directing duo, with Glenn Ficara and John Requa’s last offering being one of my least liked films of last year, the drek that was Focus. Was Whiskey Tango Foxtrot on the same level of some of their previous work, or was it another disjointed mess? I caught an advanced screening of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.
TV journalist Kim Baker (Tina Fey), tired of her dead end copy-edit job, volunteers to serve as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, a conflict and place of decreasing interest to the American public. There, she encounters a myriad of differing personalities: high-powered Australian journalist Tanya (Margot Robbie), foul -mouthed Scottish photographer Iain (Martin Freeman), lecherous Afghan politician Sadiq (Alfred Molina) and quiet but professional local “fixer” Fahim (Christopher Abbot). As time goes on and the danger increases, Baker starts losing herself to the “Kabubble”.
This is a film hitting on a number of disparate themes right off the bat, that are all worth considering. In the first, and primarily maybe, it is about civilian journalists in war zones, something that has only been effectively covered onscreen, recently, by the likes of the aforementioned Generation Kill. The embedded are an odd breed, people armed only with a microphone and camera, expected to jump into where the fray is hottest just to get the requisite type of footage, sharing many of the same dangers as professional soldiers with little of the same protections.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot portrays the kind of personality that would seek such a profession admirably enough, it falling across a wide enough spectrum – career driven people looking for the fastest way up the ladder, thrill seekers and those who are simply bored of their current mundane existence. But civilians they remain, without the training, exclusive comradery or weapons protection of the soldiery they report on, and the contrast when such civilians are dropped into a place filled with gunfire, shelling and explosions is drastic.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot frames itself as a story about these people and about that reaction, when the normal human mind is presented with a place so outside its experience, where none of the rules of its home society appear to apply. The residents of the journalism hostel in Kabul dub it the “Kabubble”, the place where you start to slowly lose yourself more and more to the hedonistic and devil-may-care lifestyle that seems so alien when viewed from the outside world.
This makes for a constant tonal shift that many will find jarring. Serious situations – the aftermath of mistaken bombings, gunshot victims, mass discrimination against women of a very violent sort – are infected with doses of black humour and people reacting in blasé ways. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot mixes and matches the drama with the comedy at a constant rate, a turnover that might appear flippant to some. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot displays this trait right off the bat, when a thumping Kabul house party is interrupted by a bombing across town, that the journalist party-goers are forced to cover in an inebriated state. The moment isn’t strictly played for laughs, but is a good indication of what the film is aiming to portray, and serves as the perfect litmus test for a viewer.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the company of soldiers and militarily minded people, not to mention various books, documentaries and films on the same topic, and to an extent I think that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is almost aimed more at people like them and people like me, because I found that constant change of tone realistic and refreshing, a keen and accurate insight into the way that people work inside the “Kabubble”. Others, including a few I saw the film with, found it an uncomfortable and largely unhumorous experience. I can’t say I blame them, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not a film that I feel will appeal to wide audience. It may have been better served going full comedy or full drama, but then again this probably would have lost the essence of both Barker’s real story (which is still dramatized it is important to note) and how things operate on the ground in Afghanistan (if interested, I’d heavily recommend Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom and Patrick Hennessey’s The Junior Officers Reading Club as books talking about the same kind of thing).
But Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is also primarily about women in warzones, from both a western and an Afghan perspective. Baker starts as a pestering nuisance to the soldiers she is assigned to, not least an under-stated Billy Bob Thornton as a no-nonsense American General. To the local Afghan population, she’s a barely tolerable intrusion, who has to be constantly reminded to “cover up”. Fresh from the US east coast, she steps into a world where, as Robbie’s more forward, confident journalist asserts, she is now a “borderline 9” in terms of physical attractiveness (Robbie’s OK, but doesn’t get near enough of a chance to truly impact the story). Booze, drugs and sex flows freely, but you never escape the disquieting feeling that Baker’s sex marks her out as a potential target to too many people, be they sexually aggressive men or culturally repressed women.
Where Whiskey Tango Foxtrot really succeeds in my view, thanks in no small part to a witty and engaging performance from the excellent Tina Fey, is how Baker rises above the sexist surrounds without totally compromising the tenants of her character. Her initial fumbling of tasks and responsibilities gives way to a weary experience as her tour extends. Her sex ends up being of use to Thornton’s general in a fascinating sub-plot about a constantly sabotaged well. Her back and forth with Molina’s awful attorney general demonstrates some spine. And Fey’s Baker does eventually discard an unequal damaging relationship at home in favour of something more real in Afghanistan, somewhat ironically.
Relationships in the Kabubble are tricky things, and much of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s second half is dedicated to Baker’s growing appreciation and affection for Freeman’s Iain, a man who is earlier indicating to be a potential menace in the making, but who turns out to be a bit of a nicer guy than the initial appraisal suggested. Freeman, putting on a passable Scottish accent, is a genuine delight as the foul-mouthed photojournalist who has long since lost himself to both the Kabubble and war zones in general, and he injects some of the better moments of black comedy, not least in an amusingly awkward sex scene. There’s a sense here that Freeman might be trying to put Bilbo Baggins behind him, and that’s OK.
Beyond that, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot explores more well-worn territory: the lengths that some journalists will go to get a scoop, contrasted with their own sense of self-preservation and ethics, the impact of reckless reporting, the addiction of dangerous situations (a source of the film’s true stand-out script moment, from Abbot) and a look at the shockingly uninterested way that so many American news media sources have treated Afghanistan over the years, a forgotten war whose depressing cul-de-sac-ness has resulted in a total lack of care by too many US citizens. Baker strives valiantly against the tide, but her increasing isolation in the poorly financed Kabubble is a firm sign of how America moved on from Afghanistan long before the fighting there was actually over. None of this is especially edgy or controversial in films anymore, and I suppose I would fault Whiskey Tango Foxtrot for not pushing he envelope a bit more. But not every film with war as a focus has to be an in-depth think-piece. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot still has plenty of interesting things to say without saying anything truly ground-breaking.
It’s the addiction portion of proceedings that dominates much of the final act of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, as Baker faces up to her own selfish and damaging actions. I have been known to use the quote “They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm”, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot uses that sentiment well, portraying a woman who initially looked for adventure, but got sucked into the thrill ride more and more, to the extent that she was in danger of dragging people down with her. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an intelligent exploration of a person waking up to that reality about themselves, and attempting to deal with it. While the third act crosses the line into territory that was dramatized just a bit too much for suspension of disbelief, it was an effective means of showing a recovering addict trying to better her life and those around her.
Robert Carlock – a frequent Fey collaborator on the likes of 30 Rock and the wonderful Unbreakable with Kimmy Schmidt – was the man tasked with adapting Barker’s story. This is no true biopic, but more of an “inspired by” tale (Barker was a bureau chief in southeast Asia during her Afghan work, not a low level correspondent) that cherry-picks some of the more humorous anecdotes (like Molina’s character, based on a former Pakistani PM Barker encountered) and dramatic incidences to tell its story. The result is a decent, and frequently quite funny, look at civilians in a warzone. Clever use of profanity and sexual slang abounds, but it is, perhaps, in the more set-up stuff that Carlock’s script realty shines, like Baker’s first conversations with Tanya, where the Aussie bluntly asks if its OK if she sleeps with Baker’s security team, an unfortunate beginning to Afghan women’s time behind the wheel of a car (“That sucks. That sucks for women”, might be the most 30 Rock-esque punchline in the movie) and an emotional monologue of Baer’s motivations for coming to Afghanistan ending in the retort “That’s the whitest thing I’ve ever heard”, are some of the choicer exchanges.
But the script also works on a dramatic level. Theirs is Fahim’s wonderful quasi-monologue on the nature of, and his experiences with, addiction, Baker’s interactions with some of her more incompetents security staff, and a briefly terrifying misadventure where Fey finds herself lost, and “uncovered” on the streets of night-time Kabul. I thought Whiskey Tango Foxtrot mixed the serious with the funny rather well, for the most part, but there are moments of sentiment-coasted politicising that grate, like a recurring look at an Afghan boy begging in the street, or some of the scenes involving Molina. But it comes right too: the culture shock of Fey, most notably in the underwritten but noticeably affectionate relationship between her and Fahim, plays out wonderfully at times, like when he nervously explains how the dictates of his society prevent him from arranging a bathroom break for Baker. Their closing moment might be the film’s best emotionally pivoted scene.
The wonderfully named Xavier Grobat is the cinematographer, carrying on a frequent working relationship with the directors, and he does his job well enough. He captures much of the essence of Afghanistan, in the beauty of its wide open spaces, and the dinginess of its more crowded, dirty urban environs, that look more like a scene from Fallout 4 than a thriving western-backed democracy. There’s also some nicely caught visual humour, like Fey’s unruly hair ruining an early broadcast. Of course, this isn’t actually Afghanistan, for the most part, but areas of New Mexico, but I bought that it was “AfPak”, so I guess, if you’ll excuse the phrase, Mission Accomplished on the visual side of things.
The devastation laid down upon Afghanistan by the Taliban and the resulting coalition occupation is likely to leave that country in a social, economic and cultural hole for some time to come. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does a passable job of depicting that situation, but in the end it is not really a film about Afghanistan. Rather, it is about the intoxicating effects of being present in a warzone, and how that changes people who previously wouldn’t have even dreamed of such an experience. I felt like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot captured this well, in the strong central performance of Fey and in the strong script of Carlock. The film is not without its flaws, not least some of the supporting cast, the tonal shifts that might have been handled a bit better and the dramatic license that becomes more and more noticeable in the last half hour or so. But overall it’s a funny, relevant take on war correspondents, women in warzones, life in the Kabubble and how conflict changes people. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures).