Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Paramount Pictures, 112 minutes
Tina Fey, star of a war movie? About Afghanistan? WTF, right?
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot deserves the mixed reviews it received when it came out last year, but it is not a miss. There is a lot going on, much to explore and enjoy, and it even got a few hard things about Afghanistan more right than not. Exactly what kind of movie is this? How does it rack up against other war movies? What does it tell us about the recent American experience of war?
First, the plot. WTF concerns the accidental evolution of a journalist who loses her balance in life, falls, and finds herself again in a warzone. In the briefest of opening scenes, we meet Fey as Kim Baker, a television news copywriter in New York whose life has flat-lined. It is 2003, the network’s star reporters are chasing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Kim takes an offer to fill in as an onscreen reporter in Afghanistan, which has been demoted to second place. Comedy mixes tones, sometimes incongruously, with drama, combat, and clash-of-culture observations. The clever screenplay delivers plenty of wartime banter and profanity laced with choice punch lines. It strives for black humor, playing on Kim’s transition from naïf to veteran, with sight gags and jokes that mine Afghanistan’s generous supply of surreal clichés.
Mostly it works. Tina Fey’s exquisite timing, gestures, and delivery all work in a war movie. Who would have thought it? Kim goes wide-eyed with terror and loss of control on her first approach to Kabul as her plane suddenly corkscrews to avoid the threat of missiles: “I guess now I am a war reporter. Shit dick!” Next to her, a seasoned journalist quips: “Kabul International Airport. K.I.A.! Killed In Action.”
Having landed in the midst of Afghan chaos, she feels her secure world of liberal norms quickly melt away; we are meant to see war as a rough master. On her first embed with the Marines, Kim throws herself into the midst of an ambush, camera thrust pluckily forward. She covers the gory aftermath of terrorist bombings. She circulates among her colleagues in the so-called Kabubble and the intensely baroque social life that every war generates. Along the way, she bonds with Tanya (Margot Robbie), a gorgeous competitor/friend with an appetite for sexcapades who guides her through the raving, life-affirming Kabul party scene; Iain (Martin Freeman), the Scottish freelance photographer, a likeable cynic who replaces her erstwhile serious boyfriend; and Fahim (Christopher Abbott), the Afghan fixer who serves poignantly as her counselor and the movie’s social conscience.
As Kim arcs from innocence lost, through addiction to danger and adrenaline, to self-knowledge and a return to normalcy, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s heritage in television, and Saturday Night Live in particular, are evident. Fey’s Kim Baker is an avatar of 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, in turn modeled on her real-life tenure as SNL head writer. SNL creator Lorne Michaels produced the film, and the screenwriter is Fey’s long-time collaborator Robert Carlock. Perhaps this pedigree is why, when watching WTF, one never quite escapes the sense that it has an ambition to portray large issues with a small screen vision.
Still, this is a new Tina Fey, or at least Tina Fey in a new setting. She retains the self-deprecating humor that won her plaudits in 30 Rock and rom-coms, but has successfully translated this quality to a new genre. War movies with female heroes are for the moment something of a rarity, and she certainly deserves credit for pulling this one off.
That said, is WTF a chick flick? Up to a point, perhaps, but mostly no. It does fit the Oxford Dictionary of Film definition as a post-classical mainstream movie with a female lead that offers a popular postfeminist take on a wide range of “female concerns.” But more importantly, it is genre breaking. The travails of love and romance that have inhabited war dramas since, say, From Here to Eternity (Zinneman, 1941) or Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942), hardly register. The relationship between Kim and her friend Tanya belongs by good measure in a buddy film. Think Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991). But then, comradeship is the quintessential third dimension of just about every war film that gets beyond blood-and-guts combat adventure. The only difference is, because the subject is war, the aggression, competition, emotions, relationships, quests for self-realization, and struggles of life and death traditionally involve men instead of women.
Many reviewers have identified Whiskey Tango Foxtrot with MASH, Robert Altman’s 1970 satire about the Korean War. But the comparison is not quite right. WTF is ultimately a light comedy leavened with a taste of the dark side. MASH uses lightness to unmask the absurdities of war—as a true black comedy should. With irony unstated, the action is displaced behind the lines in distant Korea, where the wayward medical team tries futilely to repair the brutality of war. Everyone watching the film in 1970 knew that the true subject was Vietnam and the open wound the nation was still suffering there. MASH, in its humanity, is profoundly anti-war; Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and its adventurous self-actualizing heroine flirt with being pro-war.
The film also fits solidly in the subgenre of “journalists at war,” the fictional cousin to real correspondents and war documentaries. There were a slew of these films in the 1980s: The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir, 1982), Under Fire (Roger Spottiswoode, 1983), The Killing Fields (Roland Joffé, 1984), and Salvador (Oliver Stone, 1986). All were major Hollywood releases by established directors featuring major actors. Some of them were very good. None were comedies, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot belongs to that fold anyway. Kim Baker fulfills the common elements: She is a witness to war, an observer but also its interpreter; not a combatant but a participant just the same. She encounters the dark side of herself and confronts the inevitability of death, and the experience transforms her. She fires no bullets, but her words and images have consequences, and she faces the consequences of her choices.
War Pornography and Sincerity
In the social media age, anyone with a cellphone can become a combat photographer. Photographs and videos of gore, death, and destruction feed the appetites of those far removed from the action. Vietnam, the first televised conflict, demonstrated the enormous power of war pornography, and in the early days of satellite war film crews took to roaming the countryside searching for “bang-bang” to fuel the news cycle. Much of what is going on in WTF is about commodified violence. Kim’s job as an onscreen reporter is to interpret these images of human-made disaster and thus elevate them from the realm of pure voyeurism. We see her at the scene of a nighttime terrorist bombing in Kabul saying matter-of-factly into the mic, as the camera drifts to a severed hand lying at her feet, “No word as to whether it was an IED or a specific car bomb. Over 10 fatalities reported. Sources within ISAF suggest that ISI may be involved.” Later, we witness drone controllers blowing up a group of Taliban with a Hellfire missile. WTF’s unsubtle message: Moviegoers, war is pornography, or something very much like it.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a sincere movie; that is to say, everything about it is intended to mean what it says. The humor, the cynicism, the characters, the plotline itself intentionally contrast the norms of a liberal world, its freedoms and security, with the anarchy, violence, and sheer foreignness of war. The cinematography evokes Afghanistan’s strange and austere beauty, movie magic made from seamless splices of New Mexico and Morocco. The clash of cultures between Afghans and Westerners comes across with surprising sensitivity. We see how Islam penetrates every aspect of Afghan daily life, how Afghans can be at once dignified and wisecracking jokers, and we sense the bridge of human nature connecting ourselves to these deeply opposite others.
Even the caricatures are respectful, as when Kim refers, Tina Fey-style, to Afghan women in their blue burkas as “beautiful, mysterious Ikea bags.” Or, trotting out a well-worn anecdote, a henna-bearded elder asks a black Marine through an interpreter if they are Russians. The Marine answers: “No, sir. That was twenty years ago. And we’re here to help. And I’m black.” The elder turns and walks back to his fellow villagers, duly reporting: “The Russians are blacks now.”
The great literary critic Lionel Trilling defined this form of sincerity as “the congruence between avowal and actual feeling,” meant in the virtuous sense of Hamlet’s “To thine own self be true.” As film performance, WTF possesses this public dimension of meaning what it says. What Trilling was driving at is an elusive but meaningful distinction. Authenticity is what Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ultimately lacks, a certain depth of meaning and self-awareness, a grounding in “moral realism.” To illustrate: There is an earnest innocence in the way Tina Fey plays Kim Baker, and her self-realizing war adventure seems just that—an adventure. By contrast, to take an extreme example from a science fiction movie with no connection to real life, recall Alien (again, Ridley Scott, 1979). Did you, watching it, popcorn in mouth, for the first or the fifth time, doubt for a second that Sigourney Weaver is Ripley and that her contest with the alien is a lethal struggle against pure malevolence? This gap between sincerity and authenticity does not make Whiskey Tango Foxtrot a bad movie, but it does render its premises questionable. As a war movie it resides but one step below visual literature.
To be fair, WTF does have a measure of authenticity that is not entirely the result of coincidence. Its source is Taliban Shuffle the memoir by Kim Barker of her at once harrowing, profane, and humorous experiences covering Afghanistan and Pakistan as the South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009. The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani described Barker in a March 14, 2011 book review as “a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war.” Two weeks later, Fey signed on for the part. In her book, Barker confesses:
I had no idea that I would find self-awareness in a combat zone. . . . Eventually, more than six years down the road, when the addiction overrode everything else, when normalcy seemed inconceivable, I would have to figure out how to get clean and get out.
Now this is an intriguing observation. It sounds like an unconscious metaphor for America’s recent involvement in Afghanistan. Except we’re not out of there yet.
One reason books are commonly thought of as “better” than movies is that they are more complete. This is true. In creating visual and narrative entertainment, movies almost always have to leave something out, sometimes crucial parts of the story. WTF delivers the expected war tropes, but it sacrifices the bigger picture of the Afghan war. Specifically, where Barker’s memoir toggles back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the film excises Pakistan entirely. And that exclusion misses a major irony. It’s complicated: As sincerely committed as the United States has been to Afghanistan, it has conducted the war as if Pakistan were not the principal foreign source of support and sanctuary for the Taliban, who were the ones killing American and coalition soldiers when they were there in large numbers and are still busy killing Afghans. At the same time, the United States has been delivering billions of dollars to Pakistan for its aid in fighting terrorism. This psychosis, in which Pakistan “never felt serious pressure from U.S. leaders . . . was a stunning strategic concession,” as Eliot Cohen puts it in his new book The Big Stick.
We get no sense of this from WTF. The war scenes, even the most violent one, end up seeming in a way preposterous. Billy Bob Thorton is entertaining as the savvy and gruff Marine commander, but the way his mustache and hair violate Marine Corps grooming standards gives him away. He has great lines, which on examination turn out to be non sequiturs. He tells Baker: “This war is like fucking a gorilla. You keep going till the gorilla wants to stop.” Except that has it backwards. Afghanistan isn’t the gorilla; the United States is.
And therein lies a larger point. As Robert Gates objects in Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, the third installment of his forthright and perceptive memoirs of service in eight presidential administrations, “For too many people—including defense ‘experts,’ members of Congress, executive branch officials, and ordinary citizens—war has become a videogame or action movie: bloodless, painless, and odorless.” It is not just Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Other Afghanistan movies—Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007), Lone Survivor (Peter Berg, 2013), even the compelling combat documentary Restrepo (the late Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, 2010)—all portray intimate tragedies and deadly odysseys that befall the benighted heroes of a small war. Fittingly perhaps, these films about the war in Afghanistan, with or without humor, black or otherwise, convey a limited sense of belonging to a greater cause or national ordeal. Ditto films about Iraq.
MASH stood alone in ironic genius for a long time. It was more than a decade after the Vietnam War ended before the release of an overtly comic mainstream movie, Good Morning, Vietnam (Barry Levinson, 1987), with Robin Williams at his best as an irreverent military disc jockey in Saigon in 1965. When Whiskey Tango Foxtrot appeared in 2016, the war in Afghanistan had cost on the order of $5 trillion, involved 120,000 troops from 35 nations at its height, had killed almost 3,400 Americans, and wounded another 20,000 (leaving tens of thousands of Afghans uncounted). And the war continues today. This may be an awkward subject for comedy, but perhaps it is necessary.
To put it plainly, war films reflect not only the character of the wars they depict but also the society that rests behind the warring army. In other words, they work as a kind of barometer of the national psyche. The Afghanistan-Vietnam comparison is good evidence. It would be unfair to suggest an equivalence between Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. That they are in so many ways opposites fits the argument, but these two very different films also have themes in common despite being extended social commentaries about a society that has changed a great deal in the intervening 37 years. Even their protagonists are comparable.
Consider authenticity in WTF against that in Apocalypse Now, which Coppola anchored firmly in two sources. As literary inspiration, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was the archetype for the Vietnam War; its structure, a journey into danger up a jungle river, was an odyssey of descent into, and submission to, the corrupting forces in the human condition. Coppola’s second source was Michael Herr, who died in 2016, the author of Dispatches about American soldiers in Vietnam, which captured war’s savagery, terror, and aggression with exceptionally powerful writing. Like Kim Barker’s lighter-toned Taliban Shuffle, Dispatches was a memoir of Herr’s experiences as Esquire’s correspondent in Vietnam between 1967 and 1969.
Herr wrote Apocalypse Now’s 28 narrative passages, in which the central figure, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), speaks directly to us, the audience. In these voiceovers, Willard is a proto-journalist, a self-witness, whose interpretation both propels and interprets the film. Without him we would be watching war pornography rather than experiencing visual literature. (Herr also co-wrote Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket , which featured Matthew Modine as Private “Joker,” the unwitting Marine recruit sent to Vietnam as a combat journalist.)
Contrast how the two films treat the problem of counterinsurgency. WTF wears its message on its sleeve when Marine Specialist Coughlin (Evan Jonigkeit) says to Kim Baker after a firefight: “I hope you got all that on film, ma’am. Because that’s what we do best, hearts and minds—the two best places to shoot someone.” Instead, Willard grasps the underlying dilemma in internal monologue: “It was the way we had over here of living with ourselves. We’d cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a Band-Aid.”
WTF’s Afghanistan is at least three parts comic to one part tragic, and Baker’s journey is life affirming. The Vietnam of Apocalypse Now is much darker, as is the nature of Willard’s mission: to murder the renegade and probably insane Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando):
I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn’t even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable and plugged straight into Kurtz. It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s memory, any more than being back in Saigon was an accident. There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine.
Apocalypse Now has a second interpreter. As Willard’s boat makes its suspenseful way up the river and finally reaches Kurtz’s heart of darkness, a manic hippie photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) is surprisingly there to greet him. In Heart of Darkness, he is the colorfully dressed Harlequin, the Russian wanderer who greets the novella’s protagonist Marlow on his arrival at Kurtz’s African lair. Just as Kim’s Afghan interpreter Fahim tenderly explains her addiction to danger and adrenaline, the photojournalist speaks the truth in poetry to Willard: “. . . [D]o you know that if is the middle word in life? ‘If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you.’ I mean I’m no, I can’t—I’m a little man, I’m a little man.” He explains Kurtz to Willard, and explains how the United States found quagmire in Vietnam to us: “The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad.”
The blood-soaked and operatic climax of Apocalypse Now nears to the soundtrack of Jim Morrison’s “The End.” From the shadows, Kurtz’s eyes show he knows Willard is about to complete his mission. The photojournalist rants: “This is the way the fucking world is! Look at this fucking shit we’re in, man! Not with a bang, with a whimper. And with a whimper I’m fucking splitting, Jack.” There is no Vietnam exit strategy.
Not so for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Kim Baker’s life goes forward in the final scene. A successful network news reporter back in New York, her withdrawal from Afghanistan is nearly complete. But like America, she has not forgotten it altogether quite yet. On the air she asks a U.S. military spokesman how the low preparedness of the Afghans will affect the U.S. presence in the region. He replies in military PR double-speak: “There needs to be a revision to the previously announced draw down on our future exit strategy.” This is no tragedy, nothing like Vietnam. Are the wars really that different, then and now—or are we?