The biggest problem with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is baked into the price of admission: It's a film about how the war in Afghanistan affects one middle-class white American. The film is based on the memoir The Taliban Shuffle, by former Chicago Tribune South Asia bureau chief Kim Barker, an "adrenaline junkie" who spent years writing about Afghanistan and Pakistan, reporting from the ground. But where the book offers a journalistic analysis of the era's politics, the film skews lighter and more personal. It largely centers on how an entire country's life-or-death struggles help one lady figure out who she is and what she wants out of life.
That doesn't undermine Whiskey Tango Foxtrot's playfulness, or its comic energy. It's a frequently funny film that comes packed with the thrills of real combat, with real consequences for the characters. But the basic premise does make one question its priorities. It's one thing to find bleak, black humor in a country's endless war for peace and self-governance. It's another to put that war on an equal footing with the question of whom an American woman is sleeping with, and what kind of career options are left open for her after a few years in Kabul.
How a newbie journalist becomes a confident foreigner-gone-native
When the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani reviewed The Taliban Shuffle back in 2011, she described Barker as "a sort of Tina Fey character," due to the book's screwball humor and wry, colorful stories. Fey herself apparently agreed: she pushed Paramount to acquire the book, courted Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels to help back the screen adaptation, and brought in her longtime writing partner (and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt co-creator) Robert Carlock to script the film. Fey stars as Barker, tweaked into "Kim Baker" and re-envisoned as an unsatisfied network-TV news writer who takes the Afghanistan posting in 2003 because it turns her into an on-air personality, with more responsibility and more freedom. The film also lightly implies that she has nothing else worthwhile in her life. Like everyone else the network invites to consider taking the Afghanistan posting, she's unmarried and childless, and her attachments to home seem to consist of a casual boyfriend and a handful of houseplants.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot takes the smart step of launching in 2006, with Kim as a capable, confident foreigner-gone-native, capable of robustly cursing an ass-grabbing local in his own language, and unfazed by explosions and gunfire. Then it cycles back to 2003, to show her coming to the country as a naïve newbie, so green that her first move on the ground is to pull out a big wad of cash, then instantly lose it to the raging winds tearing through the city. Much of the film is focused around how 2003 Kim became 2006 Kim, one local lesson at a time. Some of those lessons come from fellow journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), who encourages Kim to see the artificial environs of the incestuous ex-pat community as a non-stop frat party, with booze and sex endlessly on tap. ("Can I fuck your security guys?" Tanya chirps on their first meeting, implying that she's already worked her way through the largely male press corps in Kabul, and is out for new blood.) Other lessons come from sorties embedded with Marine units, commanded by a sharp, weary general played by Billy Bob Thornton.
Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, on their fourth collaboration (after I Love You Phillip Morris; Crazy, Stupid, Love; and Focus) keep the action light and lively. There's plenty of off-color banter that takes advantage of Fey's comic timing and ease with that particular combination of flailing frustration and rueful acceptance that marks so many of her characters. In spite of some dramatic set pieces — a firefight on the road with unknown combatants, a drone strike on what was meant to be an interview session — Whiskey Tango Foxtrot largely moves and feels like a comedy. Fey plays her role like a smarter, more serious version of 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, one who's slowed down and taken on a meaningful cause. It's familiar enough ground that the role only feels like a slight stretch — one Fey handles capably.
The film often feels like a grab bag of events
But the need to keep the quick-stepping humor going undermines every other aspect of a film that already seems uncertain about which elements of Kim Baker's life are important. The script gives virtually no sense of who she is before she leaves for Afghanistan, so it's hard to track how she's changing on a personal level. The story whisks across a few news stories she breaks, and the behind-the-scenes peek at journalism in a war zone is so fascinating, it becomes frustrating when the film otherwise ignores Kim's profession in favor of her sex life. Even that is handled oddly: her boyfriend is barely established as a character, so her fury at him when he cheats on her after she neglects to come home for months on end seems outsized and off-balance.
WTF finds some serious contemporary relevance in Kim's relationship to her network, which increasingly shelves her stories because Americans don't want to hear depressing, samey reports on death and setbacks. One young Marine casually tells Kim that Afghanistan has become a forgotten war. It's never clear what's changing in Afghanistan politically over the course of the film, or whether Kim feels an actual personal attachment to the people around her, or just ambition to prove herself and grab airtime. The latter motive provokes some of the film's best drama, as Kim pushes vainly for a meaningful scoop. But the film often feels like more a grab bag of tragic and entertaining moments than a coherent or consistent story.
WTF is often remarkable simply for what it isn't. It acknowledges Kim's gender, but it doesn't become a treatise on women's rights. It's caustic about the situation in Afghanistan, but not necessarily despairing or dismissive. The filmmakers made the frustrating choice to cast caucasian actors in key Afghan roles (Girls' Christopher Abbott acquits himself decently as Kim's soulful fixer, but Alfred Molina is discomfitingly plummy and over-the-top as a high-ranked official), but at least they take the time to make a few of the locals human.
There's half a story here, and not the most meaningful half
And while WTF is a white person's story in a non-white world, at least WTF doesn't portray the white protagonist as a benevolent savior-figure as films like the recent Bill Murray debacle Rock The Kasbah have. It takes some cringe-inducingly wrong-footed steps, like all Kim's talk about leaving Kabul and returning to "the real world," as if all of Afghanistan was just a painted set piece, ready to be folded up and stored once she no longer needs it. But it never tries to make her into the hero of the story. At most — as in an entirely invented and frankly unbelievable climax involving a kidnapping and a blackmail scheme — it shows her as having learned her way around a country, regardless of how little she belongs there.
But the film still frequently feels like a lost opportunity. There's almost a great story in here about what it takes for a journalist to make sense of a chaotic situation, and package it palatably and profitably while still serving the truth. There's almost a worthwhile one about a professional and political awakening that isn't entirely driven by self-interest. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a tragic lark, and an enjoyable enough experience. But it winds up feeling like about half a story, and not always the more meaningful or satisfying half.
This review originally referred to native Afghanis as Arabic, and has since been corrected.