Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Plot SUmmary:
Based on real-life journalist Kim Barker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot follows copy editor Kim Baker (Tina Fey) as she leaves her boring life in New York City to become a correspondent in Kabul, Afghanistan. As Kim becomes more accustomed to life in the “Kabubble,” she becomes addicted to the energy of her surroundings.
Remember when we got to see Tina Fey once a week? First, there was SNL, where she played the hyper-intelligent straight man to Jimmy Fallon’s giggle-y charmer and then later made magic with Amy Poehler. Then there was 30 Rock, the unconventional comedy that Fey both created and starred in that started rough and became a masterpiece. Since then, she’s worked mostly behind the scenes as creator and writer of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. While that show has moments of brilliance, it’s still in its early, uneven days. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the new film Fey both produced and stars in, is also uneven, but it doesn’t have the benefit of time to work out its issues.
The film’s writer, Robert Carlock, has been Fey’s collaborator since the SNL days and it’s sort of baffling that he (and likely she) is still making the same mistakes. Last year, Unbreakable received criticism for its depictions of race, the most egregious being casting Jane Krakowski as a Native American. While that obvious contrast between objective fact and the show’s fiction was part of the humor, the same justification can’t be made for WTF. No less than two characters who are supposed to be native Afghans are played by white actors and Fey and Co. are lucky this movie came out after John Oliver did his fierce takedown of Hollywood whitewashing.
That said, Alfred Molina as Afghan official Ali Massoud Sadiq and Christopher Abbott as Fahim Ahmadzai, Kim’s local guide, are two of the film’s best features. With the former, Kim shares a one-sided (on his part) flirtation that she tolerates in order to keep him as a source. Their interactions are important to the plot, but he really exists as the film’s resident fool—there to make us laugh and assume the government is full of similarly ridiculous men. The character would be offensive in less able hands. By contrast, Abbott’s character and his relationship with Kim form the film’s emotional center. For what it’s worth, WTF gets a lot right in the way it portrays the culture. Near the end, as Fahim and Kim say goodbye, she mentions that in her culture, they would hug. With a small smile and a gentle graze of his hand, Abbott expresses all the affection his character can’t.
Admittedly, Fey and Carlock probably aren’t totally responsible for the casting choices—even if she is the producer. Regardless of who’s ultimately responsible, the film is flawed in other ways.
Fey is generally accepted as a pro-woman voice in the industry, so it’s somewhat disappointing how much of this film’s humor hinges on her supposed un-attractiveness. More than one male character notes that Kim seems much hotter than she usually might because the options in Kabul are so limited. One even notes that she would make a fine looking boy if you put a turban on her. Personal preferences aside, all this criticism feels like the lady doth protest too much. Fey’s no dog in any world. The only reason the claim sort of works is because the only other prominent female journalist in the group is, Tanya Vanderpoel, played by Margot Robbie. Seeing Robbie walk into the shabby, dank, journalist quarters is roughly equivalent to what it would look like if the sun fell into a dumpster.
Refreshingly, Tanya isn’t just the hot villain in the way Sigourney Weaver’s character is in Working Girl, a film this one strongly resembles. Tanya and Kim are certainly professional rivals, but Carlock and Fey are smart enough to make them friends too. In most movies, they would be romantic rivals as well, but here, their passion is their work and there’s something really exciting in the way this movie allows that to be acceptable. Kim’s professional triumphs are given just as much weight as–if not more–her romantic successes. Her and Tanya’s competitiveness is about wanting to be the best and both are flawed in their dogged pursuit of success. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is at its about Kim finding self-fulfillment and camaraderie and even sex. Unfortunately, here as so many times before, Fey and her collaborators get distracted from their exploration of womanhood by a bunch of other nonsense. Maybe next time they’ll get it right.