Reviews often destroy movies, and only rarely, as in the case of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, do they create them. In 2011, a New York Times review of Kim Barker’s wartime memoir The Taliban Shuffle described Barker as “a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war.” This caught the eye of Fey herself, who began pulling strings to bring Barker’s story to movie audiences as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
The transition from page to screen is largely seamless, resulting in an engrossing depiction of the personal sacrifices of reporting on a war. There is certainly some artistic license taken rendering Barker and her experiences. Some of the changes are banal — Fey’s character is subtly renamed Kim Baker here — but others are more substantive. In real life, Barker was a print correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, but on screen she appears, appropriately enough, as a TV reporter. In an interview, Barker expressed her initial fear that the movie would become “Anchorman in Afghanistan” as a result — yet while the TV reporter conceit does enable a scattering of visual gags, it also ratchets up the dramatic tension at several moments: Fey’s Baker is unafraid to leap into the line of fire, camera in hand.
Baker’s determination to chase stories builds steadily over the film, offering a compelling, non-traditional vision of battlefield bravery; viewers may detect in Fey’s depiction a shade of Jessica Chastain’s tenacity under pressure in Zero Dark Thirty. Yet by and large, in its depiction of war, WTF opts for banality over brutality. Life in the “Kabubble,” as the western media encampment in Afghanistan’s capital is known, is laid bare: there are parties, affairs, and even a broken nose or two, even as war is waged outside with gunfire and bomb blasts in earshot.
As entertaining as life in the Kabubble is made to seem, the film is at its best when it follows Baker working the beat with her Afghan minder Fahim, with whom she forms a close emotional bond. Reporting from Afghanistan as a woman is both a blessing and a curse: from behind a headscarf, Baker gets more insight into the lives of Afghan women living through the war, and she is even able to turn the unwelcome advances of a lecherous local politician to her professional advantage.
Fey is supported by a stellar cast: Martin Freeman is convincing as veteran Glaswegian reporter Iain MacKelpie, and Billy Bob Thornton steals scenes as an impassive general.
As a critical examination of America’s involvement in Afghanistan, and how it relates to the invasion of Iraq, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot falls short: there’s little answer here to the question of what war is good for, and the impact of the conflict on ordinary Afghan life is too often rendered in soft focus and as background noise. But what the film does offer is sharp, visceral insight into the experience of reporting from the front line, and all the politics and pressures which lie behind getting a story from the frontline to the headlines.