I went into WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (which I keep mispronouncing “Whisgo Tangy Foxmen”) not knowing a blessed thing about the movie, the book it was based on, or the author behind it. It isn’t a movie in my preferred genre, but when you’re a reviewer, you go where they send you.
I guess that’s why I was so touched and moved by the story of “Kim Baker,” a desk reporter for a Major News Corporation who’s assigned to the South Asian Bureau to cover the Afghanistan War, despite not knowing a thing about covering war stories or the language or the culture. Initially, we meet a very confident, if bored, Baker in 2006 – swearing like a sailor and navigating a scene that would leave most people frozen in terror, before being thrown back to 2003 when her story begins. What starts as a fish out of water story becomes a tale of finding a tougher version of one’s self and recognizing that many selves can co-exist in the same body.
With no real motives behind their actions, more than “this the job”, “this is how we let off steam”, “this is life” the characters in WTF move through their months and years in Afghanistan surrounded and sheltered by the Kabubble (Kabul-bubble), an insulated camp where foreign correspondents live and sleep and drink and copulate and while trying to be humans not caught in the daily struggle of the war they’re covering.
It’s about how to walk away before it’s too late, and how the learning curve of “too late” can be a repeated slog through cold molasses.
It’s about knowing when to be rash and when to be rational.
It acts as a cautionary tale on how to be human, blessedly without the Lifetime movie sap.
And about that – it’s not a yuck-it-up comedy either. While the trailers portray Tina Fey as some sort of professional yet tightly wound everywoman who can’t get out of her own way, this movie is very adult, very serious, and very human, while still being light and energetic.
It’s got your romance, back-stabbing, and danger, as well the emotions that come with experiencing a culture for which you have absolutely no reference point. How do you do your job as a reporter (a job you were good at Stateside) when the Afghans won’t talk to you, the Marines treat you like a liability, your competition (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street) scoops you because she’ll sleep with anyone, and relationships you thought were solid and whole shift depending on the continent you’re on?
Tina Fey plays Kim Baker, barely learning the ropes with her interpreter, Fahim (Christopher Abbot, The Sleepwalker), navigating the freer atmosphere of the press core (Martin Freeman, Sherlock, Fargo), and the tighter restrictions of a Muslim country. Her initial assignment of months is measured in years and she notes the time missed less and less, as friendships are forged and broken, and battles both internal and external wage on. She becomes an adrenaline junkie, thrilled with the embedded assignments and needing that next dangerous mission to be fulfilled, and the story handles her personal journey without becoming dark and brooding. Her relationship with the Marine unit she’s embedded with (marshaled by Billy Bob Thorton, Our Brand Is Crisis) develops into one of eventual respect. WTF isn’t so much plot-driven as slice of life examination, and thankfully it doesn’t set out to demonize any one culture or lifestyle. It’s just different and Baker learns to adapt while creating her own path. Fellow correspondent, Shakira Khar (Shelia Vand, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) tells Baker after a night of drinking and origin stories, “that’s the most American white lady story I’ve ever heard,” and it is. This is the Eat Pray Love of the war set, without the couscous, faux religious experiences, and gleeful wallowing in the unfortunate existences of others. Baker wants to tell these stories (the Marines, the Afghans, the politics), she wants to make the world a smaller place, and she wants to do it on her own terms.
Based on the book, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, there are obvious departures (Fey’s Baker is a cable-news reporter while Barker rode a print desk), but the essence is there. It’s a tough job to bring the news that people care about, it’s tougher when you’re a woman. It’s nearly impossible when you’re a woman overseas in a hostile country, but she makes it work.
This is a completely relatable film, and if you can get past the course language (and there is a lot of it), I believe you’re in for a very satisfying evening.