In 2002, Kim Barker was a television journalist in New York, covering unremarkable stories and living a monotonous life. When she was offered the chance to cover the war in Afghanistan, she jumped at the opportunity and soon found herself in over her head as a foreign correspondent in a country she knew little about. Barker ended up reporting from abroad for five years, an experience that spawned a successful memoir, “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan” (2011), now adapted into a film staring Tina Fey. Rechristened “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” the movie, released March 4, offers a fictionalized version of Barker’s experience.
Fey is remarkably charming as ever as Kim Baker (the character’s name has been changed so very slightly from the real woman’s) and holds her own in a film that shifts between a comedy and serious war movie and back again at the drop of a hat. Rather than detracting from the film, these dramatic tonal switches feel remarkably true to the expat-journalist experience — one filled with drunken debauchery, intense adrenaline rushes, and sometimes, devastating loss. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” also does an impressive job of capturing the astonishing natural beauty of Afghanistan — something that, for obvious reasons, was hardly, if ever, mentioned in the stories coming out of the country.
This, however, is just about where the film’s merits end, and what we get instead is a story whose lazy reliance on cultural stereotypes and sexist tropes leaves “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” lacking in any real credibility. In a March 4 Buzzfeed article, Anne Helen Petersen offers a succinct explanation of why exactly “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is so infuriating: “The film feels like a cocky freshman in a Global Studies seminar trying to crack jokes. When it comes to its own failings, the film’s not smart enough to realize them and not funny enough to send them up.” And the film has failings aplenty.
Perhaps the most apt place to start is with the casting of the two principal Afghan roles, government official Ali Massoud Sadiq and Kim’s translator Fahim Ahmadzai. Both are played by two white actors (Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott, respectively) — a move that can hardly come as a surprise in Hollywood but one that is no less disappointing. To make matters worse, the characters themselves are no more than glorified caricatures of Afghan men and lack any real humanity. As Peterson points out in her article, Fahim is rendered “an exoticized sage,” while Sadiq is merely “a blundering buffoon.” To be frank, this is only the beginning of the long list of problematic representations of Afghan people and Afghan culture in the film.
Given this already troubling context, the self-discovery narrative at the heart of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” becomes undeniably disconcerting — what does it mean for a white woman to go into a country fraught with war and political strife and use it as an opportunity to find herself? However traumatic and dangerous her job might be (and it certainly is not a piece of cake), Baker always has the luxury to leave, to pack her suitcase and head home to a job far away from the violence tearing apart Afghanistan. She can opt out in a way the Afghan people — in particular the women cannot, and it feels cheap to use their trauma as a prop for Kim’s character development.
Beyond the casual racism, the film also proves to be a disappointing example of what Hollywood’s female-driven movies often are. Scenes of Kim’s professional incompetence are played for laughs, and easily outnumber any depictions of her journalistic successes. In an early personal victory, Kim breaks up with her “mildly depressive” boyfriend (a sadly underused Josh Charles) via Skype when she discovers he’s been cheating, however, this triumph is soon undercut by the rather unnecessary romance plotline that weaves its way through the rest of the film. Though it’s certainly fun to watch Martin Freeman play against type as the womanizing Scotsman Iain MacKelpie, Baker’s love interest, there seems to be no other reason to turn “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” into a romantic comedy other than the fact that the protagonist is a woman.
Meanwhile, the otherwise promising friendship between fellow journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and Kim soon unravels over competition for a job. Perhaps we should be grateful that they aren’t competing over a man, but really, must the bar be set so low for depictions of female friendships? That their relationship ends in this meaningless squabble is not so surprising, however, given that the two women first bond over the fact that they are considered more attractive in Kabul than at home. “In New York, you’re a six, seven,” Tanya informs Kim in their first interaction. “Here you’re a nine — borderline 10.” Even with source material written by a woman and with Fey as producer, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is not immune to a healthy dose of good old-fashioned Hollywood sexism.