On a surface level, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an entertaining film. There is action, there is partying, and there are a lot of funny jokes. However, in terms of themes, plotline, and approach, it is unfulfilling and disjointed, at times leaving the viewer wondering, well, “WTF?”
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot follows the story of Kim Baker (Tina Fey), a middle-aged cable news producer who has grown tired of her banal assignments, her houseplants, and her “mildly depressive boyfriend.” Suddenly, a way out appears: as one of the only unmarried, childless people in her office, she is granted the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan as a reporter, since all the strong reporters were covering Iraq. She jumps into what is meant to be a three-month long assignment, but ends up staying there for over three years. She meets and befriends attractive young female reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), who introduces her to the rock’n’roll lifestyle (shockingly) followed by Western journalists behind closed doors in Kabul.
Despite this intriguing set-up, the tone of the film is unclear, making its intentions difficult to discern. It is marketed as a comedy, and casting Tina Fey in the lead role certainly sets an expectation for laughs. While Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does serve up some timid, weak satire, fully investing in the satirical aspect would have done the film a lot of good, creating a purpose for any cultural or political insensitivities in the script. Choosing instead to play it safe, the film remains largely apolitical. Awkwardly stuck between comedy and war drama, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot lacks the satirical punch of the former and the political insight of the latter.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot sends out a well-intentioned feminist message, but its results here are about as lukewarm as its satire. Baker exhibits agency and drive as she makes an unexpected career decision and puts herself in an environment not traditionally seen as female friendly, demonstrates a positive example of women empowering women in her competitive yet supportive relationship with Kim, the only other female journalist on site. Tanya exhibits impressive agency and candidness in her sexual exploits. However, the film’s interpretation of feminism ends up coming across as narrow and Western-centric, pitting the “liberated Western woman” against “restrictive Islamic values,” and thereby reinforcing stereotypical American views of Islam and Afghanistan.
The film’s Western perspective is driven home by the fact that the two primary Afghan characters in the film are played by American actors. Ultimately, however, It is obvious that the film doesn’t intend to be about Afghanistan—it is about the personal development of an American journalist. To Kim Baker, the conflict in Afghanistan is primarily a backdrop to her self-discovery, career advancement, and search for excitement. She is easily able to extricate herself from the situation and return to the “real world,” while to most Afghans the unrest that served as fodder for Baker’s stories is their reality. There is also a stark, tense contrast between the everyday reality of the locals and the excess of the lifestyle held by westerners in their separate sheltered reality, which the film fittingly terms the “Kabubble.”
Granted, it would be nearly impossible, especially for an American filmmaker, to accurately represent the complex relationship between Afghanistan, the West, and the media in what is predominantly a comedy. And with a healthy dose of playful self-awareness, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does manage to poke fun at the cluelessness of Americans in their gross misconceptions of culture and of the impact of their actions on the lives and safety of others. Still, the misrepresentation of a conflict so recent and so easily misunderstood is discomforting.
The most successful and direct critique in the film is pointed towards media executives who refuse to show many of Baker’s stories because they claim that Americans do not care about the war in Afghanistan. Baker herself also exhibits some selfishness in her ambition to capture the most exciting stories, putting others in harm’s way in the process. At times it’s not clear whether she truly cares about the situation in Afghanistan or she is merely a spectator exploiting it for the sake of journalism.
Despite any shortcomings, the film is relatively successful as a story of self-discovery, largely due to Tina Fey’s varied and dynamic performance. Fey is funny as expected, but also adeptly shows glimpses of vulnerability, making her character very personable. Furthermore, there is a very clear difference between the clueless Kim Baker who falls victim to a scam on her first day in Afghanistan and the adrenaline-seeking, hardened reporter who leaves at the end. That being said, the disjointed nature of the film makes it unclear when and how exactly the change happened. And, disappointingly, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot spends more time on Baker’s sexual and romantic life than on her development as a reporter—although I must admit Scottish photographer Iain MacKelpie, played by Martin Freeman, makes for a fantastic love interest.
Is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot worth your time and money? The magnitude and gravity of the issues that come up in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot without a thorough enough examination make it impossible for the film to satisfy everybody. Your best bet is to avoid asking too many questions and acknowledge that it is a story based on one woman’s experiences as a journalist in Afghanistan, and that limitations are inevitable. After that, all there is left to do is laugh at the jokes and appreciate the wonder that is Tina Fey; for many people, that is more than enough.