Tina Fey is perfectly cast as the lead in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, an adaptation of Chicago Tribune journalist Kim Barker’s excellent 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The story kicks off in 2003 when Kim, dissatisfied with her desk job “writing news scripts for dumb, pretty people to read on air”, impulsively accepts a three-month assignment as an embedded reporter in Afghanistan. Kim initially struggles in Kabul. She doesn’t speak the language, she’s completely unprepared (she brought a bright orange backpack into a combat zone because the girl at the North Face store assured her it was military grade) and can’t sleep at night because of the constant gunfire. She also misses her long-term boyfriend Chris (Josh Charles) and seriously considers giving up the assignment and returning home to New York.
Luckily fellow female correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margo Robbie) is there to show Kim how much fun life can be in the Kabubble- a term used to describe the small community of Western journalists, security contractors and aid workers living in the Afghan capital. As directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa demonstrate in a series of raucous, sweaty montages, these people know how to party. Kim starts to join in on the debauchery and soon meets Iain, an unrepentantly sleazy Scottish freelance photographer played by Martin Freemen. Things continue to improve as Kim adjusts to her new environment and learns to navigate Afghan society with the help of her translator and fixer Fahim (Christopher Abbott), and she stays on in Kabul long past her original three-month assignment.
This is the point where Whiskey Tango Foxtrot begins to lose some of its momentum. Once Kim overcomes her primary obstacle and develops into a competent, tenacious war correspondent the film’s conflict splinters into half a dozen competing subplots. Kim has to fend off unwanted romantic overtures from an Afghan government official (Alfred Molina), fight for air time and resources from her employer as the American public loses interest in the war in Afghanistan following the invasion of Iraq, compete with her fellow journalists for stories and try to maintain a long distance relationship with Chris. All of these subplots contain compelling material, particularly the details lifted straight from Barker’s memoir. Unfortunately there simply isn’t time to properly develop many of the scattered storylines and intriguing supporting characters within Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s two-hour running time.
Screenwriter Robert Carlock does manage to translate much of the wry humour and appreciation for absurdity that made The Taliban Shuffle such a surprisingly funny read to the screen. He is assisted in this effort by the cast, particularly Robbie, Freeman and Fey, who work well together and all appear game for anything. Fey also proves solid in the film’s more dramatic moments, especially when she’s sharing the screen with Christopher Abbot’s Fahim. The two have to rely on their faces to convey their growing affection and respect for one another to the audience because the characters are not permitted to touch in public, and their final moment together is all the more moving because of that restriction.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a flawed but amusing glimpse into a world you don’t often see in mainstream Hollywood cinema, and if nothing else offers up the glorious sight of Tina Fey confidently cursing up a storm in Pashto.