‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ Is ‘M*A*S*H’ on the Streets of Kabul
To the film's credit, Tina Fey's war comedy avoids preachy lessons
The opening of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot sees Kim Baker — Tina Fey — standing on a darkened Kabul street while a house burns behind her. Women and men wail and hold bloodied limbs to their bodies. Baker doesn’t pay attention. She’s too busy yelling at someone in New York City over a satphone.
She’s buzzed from the explosion, fighting to get something … anything from the burning wreckage and craft it into a story. But her equipment is broken.
Baker is fluent in English and speaks a little Pashto, but can’t get anyone to listen on either side of the globe. Frustrated, she hangs up the satphone and screams into the air. Not for the loss of life, but because she won’t get her story.
Baker has been in Afghanistan too long. This is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a war comedy that turns Kabul into a mix of Chinatown and M*A*S*H.
After the minor freakout in Kabul, WTF jumps back three years. It’s 2003 and Baker is miserable. She writes copy for T.V. news anchors, rides the exercise bike at the gym and comes home to an empty apartment.
Relief comes when her bosses compose a lineup of their unmarried and childless employees. Someone has to go to Afghanistan to cover the war. Baker says she’ll think about it, but there isn’t much to think about. She needs a change of pace and has nothing to lose.
In one international flight, the naive and untested desk jockey becomes a war reporter. The United States just invaded Iraq and the eyes of the world are far from Afghanistan. Religious zealots, misogynistic men and opportunistic journalists — Margot Robbie and Martin Freeman — populate Baker’s Kabul.
The new war correspondent is timid at first, but embraces the adrenaline rush of combat during her first embed when the Taliban attack her convoy. Her Marine escorts tell her to stay in the Humvee, but she ignores them, grabs her camera and scores some amazing footage of the firefight.
Now seasoned by the high of battle, Baker falls into the Kabul routine of chasing stories in the mountains in the day and binge drinking with fellow journalists at night.
Fey and longtime collaborator Robert Carlock adapted the movie from journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle. Fey and Carlock’s movie resembles Barker’s book in tone only. The comedy duo changed major plot points, setting and characters, but that’s fine. The movie is great and stands on its own merits.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is more about America’s relationship to Afghanistan than the war itself. Marines want to survive and the journalists want the next fix — a shot of war or whiskey, either will do — and no one seems to care what the Afghans want.
Much of the humor is strange and plays in the background. A pile of shrinkwrapped cash sits in the lap of a helicopter pilot flying Baker to her first embed. Soldiers in the forward operating base pit a camel spider against a scorpion in a game of bloodsport.
A Marine launches a missile at a truck to end the firefight during Baker’s first embed. “You just shot a Javelin at a truck,” says Gen. Hollanek — played by a deadpan Billy Bob Thornton. “That’s an $80,000 piece of equipment. Anyone know the Blue Book value of a 1989 Toyota Datsun?”
The Marines laugh it off. “That’s what we do best,” one tells Baker. “Hearts and minds. Two best places to shoot someone.”
Baker later calls Hollanek to get info on background. He’s in the middle of a briefing where an officer drones over a slideshow full of incomprehensible arrows criss-crossing military buzzwords. “This war is like fucking a gorilla,” Hollanek tells Baker. “You keep going ’til the gorilla wants to stop.”
Baker doesn’t want to stop. She’s in what everyone calls the “Kabubble” — a never-ending college party where adrenaline junkies hunt for the next fix.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t attempt to have any wider message about Afghanistan or America’s war there. The closest thing comes in the form of an extended visual metaphor surrounding an Afghan child called Broken Egg Boy. The last shot of him surrounded by presumably Chinese tourists is especially clever.
The movie makes a smart choice by avoiding simple messages and easy lessons. This is a movie about Baker’s personal relationship to war and how it changes her life. And the flick is thankfully bereft of the white-savior trope that weighed down Bill Murray’s Rock the Kasbah.
In Baker’s Kabul, nothing is simple or easy. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot exposes the chaos and surreal nature of America’s adventure in Afghanistan, and never attempts to explain or excuse it. The movie comes at you, covered in blood with a laugh on its lips and a tear in its eye.
“You embrace the suck and you move on,” a wise Marine says toward the end. “It’s all we can do.”