Based on Kim Barker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) is the story of a television journalist’s assignment as a war correspondent in Afghanistan. Kim (Tina Fey) is unhappy with her stagnant career, has a boyfriend who’s frequently traveling for his job, and has little excitement in her life. Kim and a group of her colleagues are asked if they’re willing to report out of Afghanistan, not because of their talents, but because they are single and childless. Immediately we know that this story is as much about Kim’s escape from being an undervalued employee to something of a media star. In some ways it’s a makeover story, but about personality instead of looks.
Yet, WTF doesn’t manage to escape all of those tropes so damaging to the makeover story genre. For so serious a subject as war, we spend a lot of time focusing on a fellow hot blonde journalist and her hot blondeness (Margot Robbie as Tanya Vanderpoel), whether or not to have sex with various available men (including Martin Freeman as sexed up Iain MacKelpie), and Kim’s adjusted attractiveness rating (apparently a 6 in New York is a 9 in Afghanistan, or some such nonsense). I’m familiar with the concept of “dramedy,” but I’m not so sure it works here. This isn’t M.A.S.H. I’m usually a huge fan of Tina Fey’s typical brand of self-deprecating humor – simultaneously calling out sexist expectations of women’s beauty while criticizing those who would hold her to those standards – but in a staunchly patriarchal society where women are barely allowed to show hair or, in some cases, skin, this type of comedy is a bit glib. The “it could be worse” argument against feminism can be quite damaging, but in a situation surrounded by people who really do have it worse, it seems insensitive to focus on Kim being told that she “would make handsome boy.” Things can be, and are, worse.
It pains me to criticize Tina Fey this way, but there’s a bit of a Sex and the City vibe sprinkled throughout the movie. There’s one scene in particular where the Afghan women lure Kim to an alcove to reveal that they’re the ones who are blowing up the well that the Marines keep rebuilding. They lift their burkas and ostensibly tell Kim that they prefer to get water from the river, as it’s the only time they get to socialize and gossip. If you’ve seen SATC2, you’ll recall the women of Abu Dhabi revealing that they’re wearing big name western fashion designer duds underneath their burkas because, after all, they’re just like us. We’re not encouraged to identify with their humanity or with their struggle, only with their trivialities. While the situation with the Afghan women may, in some part, contain some truth, it’s presented with disappointing American narcissism – they just want to socialize and gossip in their own little way, just like us.
Thankfully,WTF is not without its very real and moving moments. When asked why she came to Afghanistan, Kim replies that she was on the stationary bike when she noticed an indentation in the carpet in front of her. She realized that it was from her bike and that for all of her years of effort, all she had done was travel backward. At a later point her companion Fahim tells her a story about opium addicts who bring their children to the hospital with broken limbs and steal morphine during the visit, that the craving for the drug is not unlike the body’s craving for the high that can be found in dangerous situations. It’s easy to tell that this is the first time Kim feels alive, that she’s doing something of worth. I can relate to that more than I’d like to admit and this is as powerful a driving force as any.
Alas, I found the movie’s end predictable and unremarkable. Without revealing too much, conflicts are resolved tidily and there are hints of a “happily ever after.” I’m curious to see how close the movie follows the source material – does it lack nuance due to time constraints or was this how the Barker presented her story? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is by no means a terrible portrayal of this journalist’s life, it’s not just anything special. How unfortunate, when special is what Kim so clearly desires to be.