“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” can’t quite figure out what kind of movie it wants to be. So it goes with the protagonist, Kim Baker, a TV newscaster stationed in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2006. The movie’s title, when reduced to its essential elements, signifies the absurdity and perils of war reporting. But it also suggests an identity crisis: WTF am I doing here? W(ho)TF am I supposed to be?
These are important questions, especially within the context of the profession the film depicts. The ethics of journalism are perhaps never more complicated than when human lives are at stake. But this is just one topic the movie addresses, briefly, before moving onto another, and then another. That’s not to say it isn’t any good; it’s just kind of all over the place, even if the setting is fixed, for the most part, to the city of Kabul, like snapshots from a travelogue, minus the travel, depicting a variety of emotional states and situational conflicts.
Baker isn’t driven by any concrete professional ambition. When asked why she took the job, leaving behind a boyfriend in America, all she is sure of is that she had to escape the doldrums of writing news copy for less intelligent people to read on camera. In Kabul, she is soon addicted to the adrenaline rush of filming, and reporting on, bursts of violence. At one point, she is so close to the action that she angers the military unit to which she is attached.
It is not the only time Baker will cross a boundary for a good story. She often finds herself in conflict with the Islamic customs of the region, specifically as they relate to the treatment of women. This can put the people ordered to protect her in jeopardy. But as a portrait of competence and self-reliance, and as a tale about the journey from professional malaise to individual purpose, the film is something of a feminist jaunt.
I suppose now is the time I should say that “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is also a comedy, starring Tina Fey in the lead role. I hesitate to use that label because the humor is merely an extension of the characters’ personalities, rather than something that illuminates the issues the movie raises. I have read that the memoir on which the film is based takes on a darkly comic tone as a reflection of its author’s approach to coping with the horrors of war, whereas the movie, with its more lighthearted approach, succeeds in sanitizing them. Still, it is at least funny on a superficial level.
Fey is perfect in the role, utilizing her dramatic and comedic talents to express Baker’s anxieties and aspirations. Her performance is restrained in such a way to emphasize that Baker is always an outsider, even as she grows more and more comfortable living in Kabul, at one point going so far as to call it “home,” after months have turned into years, sources into admirers, and friends into lovers, complicating just about everything. An effective visual motif that occurs again and again, of Baker staring impassively out the window of a car or a plane, reminds us that she sees herself as an observer, never as a permanent resident.
The supporting cast is just as good. Margot Robbie, as another war correspondent in Kabul, gives a rambunctious performance, while Martin Freeman plays a crass, yet agreeable photographer. Perhaps the most sympathetic character is Baker’s translator, a local played by Christopher Abbott whose affection for her clashes with his beliefs. Billy Bob Thornton, as a Marine Corps general, is especially hilarious.
The film is funniest when it focuses on the quotidian anxieties of being abroad in an underdeveloped part of the world. Baker is encouraged to drink countless bottles of water as her body acclimatizes to the desert environment. As a result, she has to empty her bladder at an inopportune moment, when she is far from any bathroom. Early in the film, upon being shown her unglamourous bedroom in Kabul for the first time, she asks an essential question for any new tenant. I don’t remember the exact words, so I’ll paraphrase: W(here)TF is the shower?