Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the NATO phonetic alphabet designation for saying ‘what the fuck’ and, according to the internet, shows up in the lexicon of military verbiage. It also pretty much sums up the not-so-subtle allegory behind the Tina Fey (Sisters, 30 Rock) led loose adaptation dramedy of the book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book is a memoir of real life war-reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Kim Baker.
The movie is mostly successful in showing off the ridiculousness of America’s longest war and the inverse attention span of the media and the public. It also satires the bizarre college-dorm-esque double life of the international journalists embedded to report on it.
Fey plays a middle-aged office based reporter from New York. Seeking reprieve from her job and a listless relationship, she accepts an initially short-term assignment to report from Afghanistan. WTF is set in the mid-2000s when that war was overshadowed by the ongoing and escalating conflict in Iraq.
She gets a taste for the adrenaline and risk of war as well as the new found adventure of living in Kabul and not behind her desk. On the surface, it’s not uncharted material for post-40 unmarried career women in film. She deals with the local culture and prejudices against women, the US military, and other journalists. She thrives on the competition as her taste for the adrenaline becomes addictive and her thrill puts her in more danger.
Supporting Fey is a host of familiar faces including Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock), Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Billy Bob Thornton (Slingblade, Monster’s Ball) and Alfred Molina (Spider Man 2, An Education).
In full disclosure, I haven’t read the book, but I have read about the liberties that have been taken including a predictable love-story angle. To be a self-apologist, I demand most movies be able to stand on their own regardless of the strengths of their source material, and WTF mostly holds up to that, though not consistently.
The movie is pinned as a comedy-drama and much of the comedy takes its cues from past Fey projects. But the humour feels like a product of the screenplay, or at least amplified for the film. Still, overall it’s not as much a feature as the marketing material would lead you to believe. It’s most prevalent at the beginning of the film and feels a little awkward and out of place, but this plays into the absurdity of the war and the situation in Kabul as the humour gets darker and the dramatic elements come to the fore, so ultimately it works in its favor.
Unfortunately when things do get more poignant, it feels disingenuous. Moment to moment WTF doesn’t keep its perspective on the gravity of the war, calling upon it intermittently in scenes that can feel forced. The movie comes across as trying to be insightful, but seems too hesitant to embrace truly critical questions over the length, purpose, and legacy of the conflict. Instead, it plays it safe tonally and structurally.
At times the perspective is awesome; the role of women is pretty central to the screenplay, both in the portrayal of Baker’s standing professionally and in her personal/romantic life, and in quasi-post Taliban culture of Afghanistan, but even this perspective isn’t very diverse – it’s very much white and Western centric, even when framing Afghan women.
This leads directly into the biggest what-the-fuck the movie has on display. Compounded in its lack of perspective is a lack of diversity in its casting. Playing key Afghan roles are actors Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott (Girls). Molina’s character as a powerful Afghan government official toes the line with unfortunate antiquated stereotypes, while Abbott’s performance is actually solid – but a completely unnecessary casting choice and even more disappointing considering the subject matter.
Overall the film is pretty easy to enjoy. It suffers from a formulaic plot but fans of Tina Fey will have an easy time watching it. Most of the performances are good with an enjoyable rapport between Fey and Freeman, but as a piece of insightful social criticism, it leaves a lot to be desired.