The Taliban Shuffle, the journalist Kim Barker’s darkly comedic memoir of the years she spent as an unlikely war correspondent, carries a darkly comedic dedication: “To the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, who are still waiting for the punchline.”
Recent editions of Barker’s book have since been renamed Whiskey Tango Foxtrot—WTF, in the military’s phonetic alphabet—to reflect the name of its new film adaptation, starring Tina Fey and promoted mostly as a quippy war comedy. The movie, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus, I Love You Phillip Morris), offers some light modifications to Barker’s experience: Kim (now surnamed “Baker”) is a television, rather than newspaper, reporter; the setting for the action is abbreviated into simply “Afghanistan”; people have been blended together to create efficient composites.
The basic premise, though, is the same: Kim (Fey), unsatisfied by her desk-jockey job—and just as unsatisfied by her relationship with her “mildly depressive” boyfriend (Josh Charles)—volunteers to cover the war in Afghanistan for her news network. Initially clueless about the chaos she’s been plunged into (she angers the locals, loses her money, gets scammed by a kid, confuses “Afghans” and “Afghanis,” etc.), Kim gets her bearings with the help of her fixer, Fahim (Christopher Abbott), and of the rowdy expat community she finds in Kabul. The Westerners—war correspondents, war photographers, bodyguards—are fueled by a cocktail of sex and drugs and actual cocktails; they are in Afghanistan, but in another sense they are very much not. They call the space they’ve carved for themselves “the Kabubble.”
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s plot revolves around the thing most any movie about war correspondents (including, yes, that one) will: the tension presented by people who are on the one hand heroes risking their lives to tell important stories, and on the other, the framework goes, self-indulgent adrenaline junkies. Kim, in short order, discovers the dangerous romance of war that is not one’s own: She falls a little bit in love with the conflict she’s covering.
This makes for a war comedy in the tradition of M*A*S*H and Catch-22 and Tropic Thunder and Wag the Dog, but that differs from its predecessors in an important way: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is, oddly enough, a rom-com. And while Kim may engage in an inevitable flirtation with a lascivious fellow-expat (a dashing Martin Freeman), the real lover here—sensitive and seductive and complicated and impossible—is war itself. Kim’s suitor is the ongoing quagmire that one Marine she interviews refers to as the “forgotten war—capital F, capital W.” The conflict excites Kim, and fulfills her, and saves her from herself. It completes her. It has her at hello. At one point she pretty much chases it down in an airport.
And, as in any good rom-com, much of the dramatic tension in the movie stems from romantic uncertainty: Kim being an American, she always has the option to change her mind and break things off.
It’s a morally messy premise. Afghanistan is not Colin Firth. War is not Love Actually. And that is the problem with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which is overall a charming comedy about a terrible war: It is a charming comedy about a terrible war. It flirts with the big ideas implicit in its story—the dangers of casual colonialism, the limits of cultural relativism, the failings of American interventionism—and then, just as it seems ready to make a point … it instead makes a joke. At one moment, a joke about Kim and her ignorance. (Mocked by a colonel—the scene-stealing Billy Bob Thornton—for bringing a bright orange backpack on an embed, she protests, “The girl in the North Face store said it was, like, military grade!”) At another, a joke about Kim’s 40-something-single-lady status. (She first gets assigned to Afghanistan because, as her assigner puts it, she is one of the few “unmarried, childless people in this bureau.”) At another, a joke about Kim and her privilege. (Kim explains why she took the Kabul assignment to a fellow expat. “That is officially the most American-white-lady story I’ve ever heard,” the expat replies.)
There’s also: A joke about Afghan men thinking that Kim “would make a handsome boy.” A joke about burqas. (Donning one for the first time, Kim exclaims, “It’s so pretty I don’t even want to vote!”) A joke about the many challenges and ironies of a Western woman navigating a Muslim country. (Woman on the street: “Cover your head, you shameless whore!” Fahim, Kim’s fixer: “She says, uh, welcome to Afghanistan.”)
And on and on. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot—we might as well refer to it as WTF—was adapted for the screen by Robert Carlock and produced by Fey and Lorne Michaels. And it is in many ways tonally similar to that team’s other productions, among them the Fey-Carlock-Michaels collaboration of 30 Rock and the Fey-Carlock one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The film, like its small-screen predecessors, marries big themes and small. It is witty and wry and gimlet-eyed. (Though, to be fair, tequila seems to be the booze of choice for the expats in the “Kabubble.”) It is cartoonish in its satire. It is full of classic gallows humor—the kind that has long helped people to cope with the most inconvenient, and most horrific, aspects of being people in the first place.
That makes some sense: Carlock wanted WTF, he has said, to walk the tightrope that its war-comedy predecessors have. He wanted to create a film “that dealt with horror and absurdity at the same time.” And, indeed, WTF achieves some of that. As an Eat, Pray, Love-esque travelogue and a Wild-style bildungsroman, it is laudably interested in humanizing war, the world’s most animalistic institution. Its heart is well-placed.
And Tina Fey, finally playing a character rather than a caricature, proves once again that she can ably carry a film. While there are moments when Liz Lemon’s sour self-deprecation leaks through, Fey’s Kim is, for the most part, subtle and warm and human. She makes you care whether her decidedly un-quiet American will stay in her relationship with war, or whether she will—like so many of her compatriots—leave it behind, forgotten.
But fighting against all that admirable nuance are the not one, but many jokes (jokes that are bafflingly familiar when it comes to Fey) about Kim “looking like a boy,” and about Afghan women’s burqas—uniformly blue—looking like “IKEA bags.” There is the peppy music—a-ha’s “Take on Me,” Alvin and the Chipmunks’s Christmas song—serving as a soundtrack to war. (In one particularly egregious moment, Harry Nilsson’s cheesy ballad “Without You”—I can’t liiiiiiive … if living is without youuuuuu—plays while people are being shot to death. It’s the alienation effect, unnecessarily ironized for the big screen.) And then there is the really? in 2016? fact that white actors, Girls’s Abbott and Alfred Molina, play the film’s two principal Afghan characters.
There is also the fact that WTF takes a complicated set of problems—war, poverty, betrayal, love—and, in place of making a statement about them, throws up its hands. What does it think, actually, about the quagmire in Afghanistan? Unclear. The film suggests that it might have Things to Say about world politics and feminism and the pulsing connection between one small human and the lot of us; ultimately, though, it says very little. This is made clear when its heroine, in a fit of self-realization, talks about her need to tell stories about “the real world”—her implication being that Afghanistan, her Afghanistan, does not belong to it. WTF may not be “a political movie,” but it does, as Tina Fey explained it, “make the point that people have been going to this part of the world trying to fix it for 1,000 years, and it is what it is. No one’s ever going to get a handle on [it].”
WTF, for all its heart and ambition, suffers rather than benefits from tonal ambiguity: It is earnest one moment and sarcastic the next, Platoon one moment and Under the Tuscan Sun the next. In part, certainly, that is evidence of nuance. In part, too, it reflects the chaos of the war it portrays. (Life is messy; movies about it should be, too.) But if you’re going to engage in successful satire about things like IEDs and drones and cultural imperialism and intersectional feminism and war and poverty and you get the idea, you are walking a very narrow tightrope. You need to acquiesce to the demands of Poe’s Law. You need to convey to your audience that you—and thus, by extension, they—are in control of the joke. You need to reassure them that your repeated references to “white lady problems” are the subjects of mockery rather than endorsement.
So WTF is compromised, in the end, by the same thing 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt have been, at times, before it: It gets lost in its own hall of mirrors. WTF, despite and by way of its casual humor, shirks. It ducks. It NIMBYs. It claims the amnesty of satire, without fully clarifying who, in the end, is the butt of the joke. Everyone is, in some sense. Which also means that no one is.
Call it warientalism. WTF does not engage in explicit romanticism or explicit isolationism or that thing sometimes shorthanded as “war porn,” but it does treat war with an eye that is both gimlety and glib. Here is the soft bigotry of no expectations, applied to a country and its conflicts: It is what it is, as Fey says. And here is the logic of the rom-com, too, applied to politics and human lives. To frame Afghanistan as an answer to an American woman’s great search for meaning is also to frame it as a place that can be disposed of when its utility to her has reached its expiration date. Kim has made no commitments to her temporary home. She can swipe left whenever she wants to. The country, at that point, will have given her her self-awakening; she will have given it very little in return. Comfortably returned to “the real world,” she will have gotten what she needed from her stay in the Kabubble. All while the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan are left waiting, yet again, for their punchline.