Film Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (USA, 2016)

Kim Baker, a war correspondent stationed in Afghanistan around 2005, is told by her local guide and interpreter, Fahim, that she is growing attached to the “thrill of the chase” – the hunting down of the leads, the perilous situations, the fearlessness of living and working in a war-torn country.  He tells her seriously and sagely that she is behaving like a drug addict, and, like those who have supported addicts, he no longer wanted to support her.

That’s the premise, in a nutshell, of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Starring Tina Fey (30 Rock, Saturday Night Live) and based on the Kim Barker book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it tells the story of Kim Baker (changed for the film) and her experiences in Afghanistan.

Your initial thought may be that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is just Liz Lemon from 30 Rock plonked in Afghanistan instead of on the soundstage of TGS, and in some ways, you’d be right.  The screenplay was co-written by Barker and Robert Carlock, and co-produced by Lorne Michaels, two long-time Fey collaborators during her 30 Rock and SNL days.  

If you took 30 Rock, Eat Pray Love and a totally trippy episode of Banged Up Abroad and smushed them into one 2-hour film, you start to get an idea of what WTF is all about. On the surface, it’s an account of a war correspondent’s experiences in Afghanistan, just like the movie posters and trailers say it is.  But there’s a lot more beneath that surface.

Carlock and Barker have added a good deal of humour to show that Kim is a fish out of water, along with every other western journalist here.  In the “Kabubble” (the journalists’ nickname for their compound in Kabul), Kim is a 9.5 on the attraction level, a few points higher than her 6 or 7 in her “real life” in the USA.  

When she arrives in Kabul, Kim does so with a bright orange backpack, a grave security risk, considering she has to shadow military personnel. There’s a funny exchange where she’s reprimanded for this, with her military officer handing her a roll of camouflage tape to cover her bag in, telling her the orange is only good if she’s planning on hiding “in the sun”.

But there are other elements to this film as well.  Kim comes to realise her own strength and resilience in her time in Afghanistan, including slight sexual advances by an Afghan politician (Alfred Molina), a growing romantic relationship with photographer Iain (Martin Freeman, finally no longer the hapless everyman he usually plays) and her surprising friendship with fellow journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie).

Because this is a film about a Westerner’s experience in Afghanistan, it does certainly place the war and the Afghan people as “the other”, but thankfully not in a way that sits uncomfortably with viewers.  Cultural differences do come up, but they should, because Kim is so out of her depth, and it’s the story of her wading through these differences that make the film interesting.

In one touching scene, Kim says goodbye to her interpreter, Fahim, played by Christopher Abbott.  She tells him, “In my culture, this is where we hug”.  Knowing they can’t, their goodbye is all the more heartbreaking.

There are a couple of things that may make people uneasy watching this film.  The casting of Molina and Abbott in Afghan roles is certainly a bit of a puzzler, and whilst they both played their roles reasonably well, it’s another example of Hollywood whitewashing.

Another item is the fact that the film, although we know is told from an American’s point of view, really doesn’t give us enough of an insight into what it’s like to live in Afghanistan during that period.  Kim, and all other journalists stationed there, had the privilege of leaving it whenever they could, if it got too tough for them, if their careers led them elsewhere, if they missed home.  For the Afghan people, that is their home.  

In one scene, Fahim saves Kim from being harmed by a group of men. The experience scares him, and he angrily tells her that she should have stayed in the car like she was told.  Kim understands his anxiety but there’s a wry smile on her face.  She got the footage she needed, and her reaction is like a child getting away with something she wasn’t supposed to.  For Fahim, however, it’s a life and death situation.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a definite must-see for Tina Fey fans, and a solid film for anyone looking for a thought-provoking comedy.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is in cinemas now.

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