Film Review: Flying Under the Radar


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, written by Robert Carlock (based on the book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker); directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa. Copyright 2016. Seen March 1, 2016.

I didn’t always want to be a journalist. I kind of fell into it. I *have* always wanted to be a writer, though. From the days of elementary school when I told a fellow student ghost stories about the stereotypical creepy house to my first written story about a polychromatic monster named Poly, I’ve always loved to read and always loved writing. However, for most of my life, that writing stayed in the fictional world.

It wasn’t until college where it dawned on me that I could do other types of writing. I went into my undergrad with the idea to be an English teacher, as I didn’t know what other jobs you could get with an English major, but quickly realized I did not have the patience for teaching (kids specifically). However, it was the realization that I was always good with research papers and essays, and that journalism is basically the same concept, that made me start looking into a journalism major.

I still don’t really consider myself a journalist. I freelance, but mostly cover things I want to cover, and have avoided many jobs in the industry because I know I would prefer to write about things I am passionate about and not just what is assigned to me.

I give this background because that’s what Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is about, in a way: that struggle of a journalist on what to cover. Based on the memoir The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker, the movie follows Barker (Tina Fey) from her time at a network doing small stories on how sugar can be a problem to becoming a war correspondent in Afghanistan during the 2000s. She, one of the few ‘unmarried childless’ reporters gathered when the assignment is first offered, is in a long term relationship with Chris (Josh Charles), and when she first enters “the bubble” (i.e., Kabul), she valiantly declines the inherent hedonism that covering war seems to engender.

However, after meeting the other female journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), who is a bit of an idol, she slowly starts to blend in. She starts becoming entrenched in the life, working with her on-site contact Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott, in an excellent understated role), her bodyguard Nic (Stephen Peacocke – who seems to want to sleep with any female), the military contact General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton, doing his usual thing), and Scottish photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman).

A short visit turns long term, and visits home get interrupted with possible hot interviews with Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina, looking like he had the time of his life), at first a low-rated government employee and eventually the prime minister. So, when Barker catches her boyfriend cheating on her, she launches into a relationship with Iain that for her is just a short-term thing, but may be more to him. As the channel winnows down the coverage on the Afghan war, she becomes more desperate for a ‘hit’, endangering her life in the process. This gives her a bit of a wakeup call, but it’s not until Vanderpoel gets harmed in a drone attack (and finds out that Vanderpoel is using that to apply for a job at Barker’s network) that she really starts to decide this is not the life for her.

I’ll admit: 90% of the reason I even heard of this film was because I’m a fan of Martin Freeman. When it comes to Tina Fey, I’m … agnostic. I don’t dislike her by any means, but I’m not a huge fan clamoring for more either. On top of that, I’m not a huge fan of war films, even the comedies. Finally, Islamaphobia is worse than ever, and I was concerned that a movie based on the events of the Afghan war would deal in tropey stereotypes of both the people and the topic. I was almost going to wait until it came out on DVD, until I had the chance for an advanced screening.

I am so glad I went.

I can’t say I enjoyed the film – I feel it’s like saying you enjoyed watching Shindler’s List. It’s too dark of material to ‘enjoy’ it. But at the same time, it was highly entertaining. The film beautifully pulls off the high wire act of combining comedy (and dark comedy at that) with the more dramatic (and serious) plot elements. It readily acknowledges that many people are able to get through high stress or tough times through comedy and doing things that may not be the most wise or mature things, and shows the dark side as much as the light. Much of the humor is inappropriate, and that’s kind of the point: life sometimes is only bearable by making jokes that really shouldn’t be funny in the situation, but end up being hilarious. This is right up there with M*A*S*H for darkly comedic war films.

All the major characters are well developed. Of course, it helps that these are based on real people, but no one is perfect, and all of them mess up at one time or another. This isn’t anti-military, although you could make an argument that it’s anti-war: and the fact that it makes that difference says something.

As for my concern about the racial issue, they are as varied as the rest of the cast. We get everything from the Afghans we run into go from Fahim, who becomes Barker’s friend and warns her of her increasing addiction to the high attached to the job, to Sadiq, the epitome of the oily politician and is constantly undermining Barker by suggesting she have sex with him.

In fact, that’s the primary reason this movie spoke to me. Even though I don’t consider myself a journalist, I still pay attention to the field and see how female reporters are often treated. From Megyn Kelly being reduced to her looks to the trope where almost every single female journalist depicted on screen as sleeping with their source, being a female journalist (especially in a male-dominated beat such as covering a war) is a constant battle for respect. This movie broaches this issue with a no-holds-barred attitude, but at the same time it’s not a movie about a woman trying to make it in a man’s world. It’s just another plot device, like the romances going on, which brings an authenticity to the movie that makes me want to read the book.

And while yes, Martin Freeman is excellent in it (his karaoke cover of “Take On Me” has to be seen/heard to be believed), it’s Fey who (rightfully) stole my attention. As I said, I’ve never really gravitated toward her, and her acting is sublime. One of the reasons I love Freeman as an actor is his (typical) subtlety, all the little things that make up the whole. However, this time around, he’s actually kind of going over the top with the role (the Scottish accent doesn’t help), and I fully believe it’s to counter Fey’s outstanding performance of a woman who is trying to figure out what her life is supposed to be about.

I’ve often railed at plots that don’t answer any questions for the sake of ‘trying to be like real life’, and it’s primarily because it just feels like lazy writing. This doesn’t have any answers, and this is one of the few times where it feels right. Barker isn’t quite sure where she wants to be, and as someone who picked up her life at the age of 39 to move five states away and pursue her master’s degree, I related far too much to her. By the end of the movie (spoiler alert), she’s got a better handle on who she is and what she wants to do – both in her career and her life.

Being a war correspondent is tough, and I have the utmost respect for those who cover dangerous issues. Not as tough as the actual soldiers, by any means, but it’s a job where you literally put your life on the line, and where the phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads” definitely takes on new meaning. Barker’s fight isn’t just for top story, but for also to get the US public to acknowledge that this war is still going on and to not forget it.

Much like the war, this film may fly under the radar considering the release date and the low key marketing of it. And that would be a shame. It’s just as important of a journalist story as Spotlight, and deserves a look. I may not consider myself a journalist, but I do know when to shine a light at something most people may not be looking out for. And this is definitely such a case.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot opens nationwide March 4. For more information, visit the official website.