Tina Fey’s New Movie Is Funny But Flawed
Tina Fey does light comedies: Baby Mama, Date Night, Sisters. Given her career to this point, I expected Whisky Tango Foxtrot to be a straightforward comedy, and the trailer seemed to confirm my expectations. I was surprised, then, by the darker tone of this movie, and the greater dramatic range required of Fey in her role as a desk-bound journalist who blows up her comfortable life by taking a job as a war correspondent in Afghanistan. Whisky Tango Foxtrotis directed by Dexter Fletcher and based on The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a memoir by foreign correspondent Kim Barker. It’s not a great movie, but it has a wry, absurdist spirit and Fey’s strongest performance to date.
As Kim Baker, Fey is a settled desk journalist who is initially a fish out of water in Afghanistan, among seasoned correspondents who chase hard after stories by day, and party hard by night. It doesn’t take long for Kim to adapt, though. She can drink, swear, and put her herself in harms way with the best of them. In fact, Kim’s recklessness places others in peril, something she blithely ignores until her driver, Fahim (Christopher Abbott) quits after risking his life to save her. In part, Whisky Tango Foxtrot is about the addictive nature of this extreme life, and the way that it changes the journalists who live it. There’s a fine line between courage and self-destructiveness, and Kim finds it harder and harder to tell which side she’s on.
Whisky Tango Foxtrot is also about our culture’s short attention span. Kim is initially sent to Afghanistan (in the early 2000s) because all of the high profile correspondents have moved on to Iraq – and so has the public’s interest. It’s not just the journalists in Afghanistan who find this exasperating. It’s even worse for American soldiers there who feel forgotten and struggle to find meaning in their mission. The soldiers in Whisky Tango Foxtrot (led by Billy Bob Thornton as a general) are entirely plausible and sympathetic, and Thornton is wonderfully grim and sarcastic as a decent man who knows a quagmire when he’s in one.
Most of the rest of the cast of Whisky Tango Foxtrot is fine. Fey is still gaining her footing as a dramatic actress, but she does well here. Margot Robbie is an established British correspondent and Martin Freeman is a Scottish photographer whose reputation as a cad is, perhaps, overrated. It’s unfortunate, though, that the makers of the movie chose to whitewash their casting. Abbott is very, very good – but why is he playing an Afghan driver? Why is Alfred Molina, entirely wrong in the role, playing an Afghan politician? Were there no South Asian actors available at all? I had hoped that we were farther along in diverse casting than Whisky Tango Foxtrot would indicate.
As I said, there’s a streak of dark humor to this movie that I enjoyed, and it seemed to fit the film’s setting. As the Taliban imposes more restrictions on the populace, laughter feels more and more like a weapon of resistance. When Kim is required to wear a burka to go to an interview she looks at herself in a mirror and says, “I look so pretty, I don’t even want to vote.” It’s a great laugh line, but it actually points to one of the real weaknesses of Whisky Tango Foxtrot: it’s a picture of a culture in collapse delivered from a privileged perch. Kim places soldiers in danger as they try to protect her, but she can go home. They’re stuck there. She can joke about the treatment of women in Afghanistan, but she can take the burka off and claim her rights as an American. The women she encounters huddled inside an Afghan home don’t have that option. At one point Kim explains how her dissatisfaction with her job and boyfriend led her to come to Afghanistan, and another correspondent – South Asian – replies,
”That is the most American white lady story I’ve ever heard,”
and she’s right. The American soldiers, the Afghan people, the chaos of the war on terror, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism – it all seems to serve primarily as the catalyst for Kim’s self-discovery. War correspondents do dangerous and important work, but Whisky Tango Foxtrot makes Kim’s work a stopover on the way to learning important life lessons. From what I’ve read, Kim Barker’s memoir is more in depth in its political observations, and particularly its critique of the Karzai government in Afghanistan – but most of that is lost in the movie. It’s as if we’re being given Eat, Pray, Love but with less locales, and more bombs and bullets. It seems all too typically Hollywood to make American soldiers and the the people of Afghanistan (not even played by Afghans) simply the back drop for another “American white lady story”.