As surprising as it may be for a film about the war in Afghanistan, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot finds a remarkable balance between comedy and seriousness

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) 

Di­rect­ed by Glenn Fi­car­ra and John Re­qua. Writ­ten by Robert Car­lock based on “The Tal­iban Shuf­fle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pak­istan” by Kim Bark­er. Star­ring Tina Fey, Mar­got Rob­bie, Mar­tin Free­man, Christo­pher Ab­bott, Al­fred Moli­na, Bil­ly Bob Thorn­ton, Josh Charles, Sheila Vand, Nicholas Braun, Steve Pea­cocke, Evan Jonigkeit, Scott Take­da, Cher­ry Jones, Ster­ling K. Brown and Thomas Kretschmann.

In 2011, Amer­i­can in­ter­na­tion­al jour­nal­ist Kim Bark­er pub­lished a mem­oir called The Tal­iban Shuf­fle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pak­istan de­tail­ing her ex­pe­ri­ences as a war cor­re­spon­dent in those two coun­tries dur­ing Op­er­a­tion En­dur­ing Free­dom. Ac­cord­ing to her, it was af­ter Michiko Kuku­tani re­viewed the book for the New York Times — even stat­ing that Bark­er “de­picts her­self as a sort of Tina Fey char­ac­ter” — that Fey her­self be­came in­ter­est­ed and de­cid­ed to turn the sto­ry into a film. In fact, Fey was clever to no­tice that Barker’s book was the per­fect ma­te­r­i­al for a com­e­dy (or dram­e­dy), no mat­ter how strange this may sound for a sto­ry about the Tal­iban and the war in Afghanistan.

Adapt­ed by Robert Car­lock (a vet­er­an of Fey’s TV se­ries 30 Rock) and di­rect­ed by Glenn Fi­car­ra and John Re­qua (I Love You Phillip Mor­ris, Crazy, Stu­pid, Love), Whiskey Tan­go Fox­trot (whose cheeky ti­tle is mil­i­tary pho­net­ic al­pha­bet for “WTF”) be­gins when Kim Bark­er (Tina Fey) is as­signed to Afghanistan, leav­ing her dis­ap­point­ed boyfriend Chris (Josh Charles) back home. There, she meets oth­er in­ter­na­tion­al jour­nal­ists, among them not­ed Aus­tralian cor­re­spon­dent Tanya Van­der­poel (Mar­got Rob­bie) and lewd Scot­tish free­lance pho­tog­ra­ph­er Iain MacK­elpie (Mar­tin Free­man). Helped by her Afghan “fix­er” Fahim Ah­madzai (Christo­pher Ab­bott) to find sto­ries, Bark­er be­gins to put her­self in dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions so that she can cap­ture com­bat in­ci­dents on cam­era while, at the same time, starts to feel com­pet­i­tive to­wards her fel­low jour­nal­ists as she tries to get more and more stories.

Find­ing a re­mark­able bal­ance be­tween com­e­dy and se­ri­ous­ness right from the be­gin­ning, Whiskey Tan­go Fox­trot de­picts Afghanistan as a hos­tile place cov­ered with windy, dusty land­scapes that seem aw­ful­ly un­invit­ing — and Bark­er is even ex­pect­ed from the lo­cals to cov­er her­self and look like an­oth­er “beau­ti­ful, mys­te­ri­ous IKEA bag.” To make things more com­pli­cat­ed, she needs to adapt (and fast) to an en­vi­ron­ment made up most­ly of men, which nat­u­ral­ly in­cludes the ca­su­al sex­ism that comes in it. My fa­vorite mo­ment that il­lus­trates her fish-out-of-wa­ter predica­ment is when she needs to take a leak in the bush­es dur­ing a field op­er­a­tion and a sol­dier tells her with­out minc­ing words “it must be a hell of a hairy dump.” It is the kind of hu­mor that no one ex­pects to blend so well with ac­tion scenes shot with a hand­held cam­era in the mid­dle of the desert dust.

And who can bet­ter pull that off than Tina Fey, who has proved many times that she can be re­al­ly fun­ny with a dead­pan face? On the oth­er hand, she def­i­nite­ly knows how to keep her char­ac­ter ground­ed in re­al­i­ty as well, even in the weird­est sit­u­a­tions, like when fic­tion­al Afghan gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial Ali Mas­soud Sadiq (Al­fred Moli­na) makes awk­ward sex­u­al ad­vances when she tries to use him as a source. Moli­na is great, de­spite be­ing a strange choice for an Afghan con­sid­er­ing that he is half-Span­ish half-Ital­ian, in an­oth­er ir­ri­tat­ing ex­am­ple of Hol­ly­wood whitewashing.

The rest of the cast also shines: Mar­got Rob­bie is beau­ti­ful and de­light­ful­ly foul-mouthed, Josh Charles is al­ways tal­ent­ed and Bil­ly Bob Thorn­ton is hi­lar­i­ous as Gen­er­al Hol­lanek of the US Ma­rine Corps, who sees Bark­er as a nui­sance in his way but then gets used to her. How­ev­er, there are two ac­tors who stand out. First, Mar­tin Free­man plays a sur­pris­ing­ly com­plex char­ac­ter who seems like a chau­vin­ist who has no re­spect for women but lat­er re­veals an un­ex­pect­ed side. Soon we re­al­ize that there is a lot more to this man than he shows and the kind of per­son he ac­tu­al­ly is.

But it is Christo­pher Ab­bott who blew me away and even made me for­get the whole white­wash­ing for a minute. His Fahim de­vel­ops the kind of nu­anced re­la­tion­ship with Bark­er that turns out to be the most in­ter­est­ing el­e­ment in the film, es­pe­cial­ly when he fi­nal­ly con­fronts her about her ob­ses­sion with dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions that re­sem­ble a drug ad­dic­tion. This scene is so won­der­ful (and Ab­bott so im­pres­sive) that I wish to see him soon re­ceive the recog­ni­tion he de­serves. It is mo­ments like these that turn this movie into some­thing special.

Mean­while, the ex­cel­lent script also finds time to com­ment on the glar­ing cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences (like a cou­ple for­bid­den to hold hands in pub­lic) and the pover­ty (“It is a scam, but they are still beg­ging”), nev­er afraid to show (quite graph­i­cal­ly) the bloody con­se­quences of the war. The scenes that take place in Kan­da­har, for in­stance, are tense and sad­ly re­veal­ing, es­pe­cial­ly when we see a wrecked, graf­fi­tied school where ed­u­ca­tion is for­bid­den for women — women who are forced to cov­er them­selves with burqas from head to toe (a “blue prison,” as some­one points out).

With a won­der­ful sound­track that in­cludes Ra­dio­head, Air Sup­ply and The Na­tion­al, Whiskey Tan­go Fox­trot re­mains sur­pris­ing un­til the very end when it finds space to dis­cuss how the Army treats sol­diers who lose their limbs in the line of fire. The film may be quite fun­ny, but it is also a touch­ing and hon­est char­ac­ter study that shows how this whole ex­pe­ri­ence changed Kim Bark­er as a per­son. And the sen­si­tiv­i­ty it finds to tell her sto­ry is what makes it so worth it.


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