In the military, the phrase ‘whiskey tango foxtrot’ is jargon for ‘what the fuck’, indicating a general sense of disbelief. An appropriate title for a situational comedy set in the Afghanistan war zone, this is clearly also the three words flashing in the mind of Kim Baker, the protagonist that sounds and acts like Tina Fey, played by Tina Fey. Belonging to a genre that Hollywood seems starved of, ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ is directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and is based on the memoir by the real Kim Barker, ‘The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan’. Smartly written, insightful and sweet all at the same time, this quintessentially Tina Fey story combines the social debates and cultural conflicts relevant to today, with a universally personal story of fulfilment. Offering us an alternative perspective of war and the people involved, it tries to show us the exact lengths that people are willing to go to keep their mind off the depressing violence.
‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ follows an adventure in the life of bored television journalist Kim Baker, who decides to leave familiar Manhattan for the blood and sand of the Afghan war zone, on an assignment as war correspondent. A listless 40-year old who feels nothing but emptiness in her work, boyfriend and daily life, she is more than ready for a change of pace and scenery, even if that means plopping herself down in the middle of the war. It is here that she meets Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), fellow journalists trying to make the best of the situation, something that starts to feel less like punishment and more like the party that never ends, as the story marches on. Forming unlikely friendships with the sexually interested Attorney General (Alfred Molina) and with her fixer, Fahim (Christopher Abbott), Kim soon learns that this strange new land, for all of its life-threatening situations, is far enough from the artificial and the monotonous that riddled her life back in Manhattan.
In her 2011 review for ‘The Taliban Shuffle’, New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani described the protagonist as a ‘Tina Fey’ character, primarily for her comedic voice in the book. So there should be no surprise that Tina Fey is perfectly cast in this film, which makes compromises in several other places, despite retaining the comedic voice of the original. Starting out as irreverently light-hearted about the war as Fey’s character in the first act, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot gradually wakens to the value of human life, and the tall costs of risks taken in the battlefield. Bringing the audience in close proximity with the people whose safety and freedoms have been taken from them, it humanizes the lives we often tend to ignore or disregard in light of more pressing matters, and helps us in relating to their daily struggles. There is a particular moment towards the end of the film, where Colonel Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) realizes that the well his army keeps having to rebuild is in fact being destroyed by the women of the village, which speaks out to those who believe themselves qualified to decide what is right for others, something offshore armies have done for years in the name of protection.
Barker’s book was intended and heralded as the antithesis to the famous book-turned-movie ‘Eat Pray Love’, and this narrative of breaking gender norms is a large part of the film (unsurprising too, considering Tina Fey’s active involvement in smashing stereotypes). From Kim’s initial reactions to the notoriously female-oppressive and patriarchal Afghan society to the surprise on Fahim’s face when Kim runs off into the battlefield sans armour, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot introduces new gender conflicts at every turn, leaving its central character (and the actor playing her) to do the rest. It is the universality of the fish-out-of-water story that makes for the conflicts and humour in the film, slowly giving way to profound realization through becoming one with the rhythms of the strange land. Not failing to address the American infatuation with seeking life-changing experiences in foreign lands (again, something that was central to ‘Eat Pray Love’), the film highlights the dangers one exposes oneself and others to, in following such a selfish pursuit, especially when said pursuit is made in military zones rather than the bazaars of India. Kim Baker is a character that understands the hypocrisy in such overblown ideas, starting out poking fun at faux spiritual escapes in romantic locations, but ultimately realising that a change in scenery does not mean better, even when made in the opposite direction.
Despite the rich ideas and interesting situations introduced and played around with by the film, its failure lies in its inability to translate onto screen the harrowing realities of reporting news from a warzone, something ‘The Taliban Shuffle’ pulled off really well. Considering that the real Kim Barker was speaking from hands-on experience, and that books generally offer more space for content, it seems only fair that we allow that the filmmakers decided to highlight certain things more than others. However, it is unfortunate that Tina Fey’s voice and frisky mood overwhelm those of Kim, swapping the dry, irreverent and the mature for more accessible and raunchy payoffs. Shedding the realistic depiction of day-to-day struggles set against the backdrop of gunfire, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is easily more about the comedy than the war, something which takes away from the climactic payoff, making it seem like the culmination for a whole different film. The story is deeply personal, and filled with characters who receive sufficient care to make worth the emotional investment, so that the story does not feel forced. There is no better way to describe or sell this film than as a Tina Fey comedy set in Afghanistan – if you are able to look past the compromises made and the themes downplayed, it is guaranteed to be an entertaining time at the movies. While Fey’s film may not do justice to the ‘war comedy’ tag, it definitely gives us a refreshing look at people in warzones, and the ironic juxtaposition of life and death.