When it comes to covering the most intense and important stories in the world, it’s not enough to stand on the sidelines and call out a play-by-play. To truly tell the story right, one actually has to suit-up and get in the game. Depending on your personal make-up, this might seem a little insane, or incredibly exciting. No matter which side one falls on, this much is clear: to do a job like this, you have to be prepared to leave a lot behind. A heavy cost to pay, leading one to wonder just who amongst us is crazy enough to pay it.
Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is a producer with an American news bureau around the time America shifts focus in The War on terror from Afghanistan to Iraq. With resources now being stretched to cover two fronts, the media looks to send any available bodies into the fray. So single and childless employees like Kim are corralled and tasked with going into the fray: experience be damned.
When Kim arrives in Kabul, she is embraced by a community of expats, international correspondents, and liaisons that are sort of living version of The Island of Misfit Toys. Her immediate circle of trust are two men that make up her security detail: Fahim (Christopher Abbott) and Nic (Stephen Peacocke). The three get along well enough, even if they have to take into account Kim’s inexperience and occasional recklessness.
In the circle of fellow members of the media, Kim finds the greatest kinship with Australian reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and Scot photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman). Both of them seem to have the approach to the job that Kim most wants to embody. Both also seem to care about her on a deep personal level in short order. However, personal relationships and professional endeavours do not always mix, and before Kim shakes the last grains of desert sand from her boots she will be put into difficult situations by both of these two characters.
During her time in Afghanistan, Kim will develop a tenuous relationship with US Marines General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thronton), sometimes becoming a help to allied missions…sometimes testing their patience. She will also drift into the orbit of an Afghani bureaucrat named Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina) who seems to advocate for sharia law, but might not entirely practice what he preaches.
All just another day in the life for a westerner covering the War on Terror.
The beating heart of this film is Tina Fey. There’s a fine line between flustered and incompetent and Fey seems to not only know precisely where that line is, but also how to play it for both sympathy and respect. She has always had a sort of self-deprecating disposition; one that quietly follows every “my bad” with a look that says “you and I both know I can do this”. It’s a quality that comes through in every character that Fey has ever played, but one that really seems to serve her well in a meatier role like Kim.
The film takes its harshest look in the mirror during a scene between Kim and Fahim. After a particularly reckless moment of putting herself in harm’s way, Fahim calls out Kim for not simply trying to do her job or expose the truth, but for actually chasing a high. He paints her as an addict, trying to fill a void with greater and greater highs that come with the rush of being a war correspondent. He accuses her of getting a contact high, and doing what she does for selfish reasons more than serving a public interest. In short, he takes the HURT LOCKER theory that “War is a Drug”, and applies it to those that cover it alongside those that fight it.
It’s a harsh accusation since it seems to undermine Kim’s entire reason for being there. She has already confessed that she wanted to blow-up her stagnant New York life, and at arm’s reach she seems to have blown it up in a virtuous way. To look at her decision, one would think “Well, there’s someone who’s out to do some good”. However, the harsh truth is she’s still just blowing it all up. The positive contribution she is making to the world in Afghanistan is at least 50% ego-driven after a while, and that teeters on self-destructive.
To hear Fahim point it out makes many of us think about what we do to chase a high, and how we hide from real problems. Sure, we aren’t all taking assignments as embedded journalists and reporting on insurgent kidnappings, but a lot more of us than might care to admit are addicts hiding in plain sight from big problems.
If the film had stayed with that point, it might have packed an incredibly stinging punch. If not that point, then perhaps the idea it floats in the late-going that many in the west want to support the troops, but also don’t really want stories about their work depressing them every night at six-thirty. However, the film loses focus, and ultimately clouds its harshest critiques. It feels like it has three different endings, chomps down on a lot of ideas but never takes a full bite, and comes away feeling like a lesser experience.
WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is a better story than it is a film. There are moments on the screen of genuine poignancy and complexity, but none of them are fleshed-out enough to hit with power. It feels like something that could have been helped with a sharper script or a clearer direction. There were a lot of stories to tell over the thirteen years America was engaged in Afghanistan, and the people who told those stories have a fascinating story all their own. Walking away from a comfortable western life to confront both personal flaws and professional hardships is a story worth telling…but more importantly, a story worth telling right.