A character in Tina Fey’s latest movie, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, explains war reporting as similar to the high obtained from drugs. That is, while it feels great initially, there always has to be another fix and to get the sort of adrenaline rush reporters get the first time out, they have to keep chasing bigger and bigger stories, thereby putting themselves in more and more danger. As the logic goes, the pursuit of either drugs or war reporting in this fashion leads nowhere good.
This bit of wisdom is imparted to Fey’s reporter, Kim Baker, by Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott), Kim’s “fixer” for much of her time in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2006. Fahim’s job is to translate, know the area, point Kim towards good stories, and keep her out of trouble (she has a security guard, played by Stephen Peacocke, for this last bit as well). As the film depicts it, Fahim’s drug analogy is exactly right and the audience watches Kim go from being utterly terrified at the start of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to lusting after stories, pursuing them no matter the potential danger.
Her fellow journalists, Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), do the same. They are all willing to turn their backs on friendship, love, and anything else to pursue their drug of choice.
So, as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot unspools, we see this play out. We watch as Kim lets her home life drop by the wayside and grow more and more comfortable in Kabul, despite it never being a safe place.
Co-directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, not only does Kim’s pursuit of new and bigger stories play out as a bunch of hits—and ones with ever decreasing returns—so too does the movie. WTF is, as it opens, an exciting tale and we see Kim go from having a safe desk job and safe boyfriend (Josh Charles), to a stint reporting from Afghanistan. Her first time being embedded with Marines (led by a general played by Billy Bob Thornton) is new and different and intoxicating. Her first time partying out in Kabul with her newfound friends is fascinating. But, as the film continues to run, and as Kim’s risks get bigger and bigger and she teeters ever closer to the precipice, the adrenaline rush imparted to the audience fades.
Ficarra and Requa are never able to quite transport the audience from watching Kim’s descent to taking part in it. We revel in individual moments, and we certainly laugh in short, staccato bursts as a joke is abruptly cracked, but we stand on the sidelines throughout, waiting to see Kim hit rock bottom and wondering if Whiskey Tango Foxtrot will allow her to wind up in recovery or if she’ll find a far more serious, darker fate. This last despite the fact that the movie is based on the memoir by Kim Barker (yes, Barker not Baker) about her time in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Even if one hasn’t read the book before seeing the film, we know too much about how it’s going to all play out. We know that Alfred Molina’s all-knowing, all-seeing Afghan government official is going to have an important role before things are said and done. We know that Kim is going to make terrible mistake after terrible mistake, and can guess people will, at some point, get hurt. We know that she is going to find a love interest and that she is going to be betrayed at least once. Whether these elements have a basis in reality or not, WTF plays out as a Hollywood story and hits all the necessary beats that entails.
We also know that at some point in the film, Kim is going to find herself looking for forgiveness, or perhaps absolution. The inclusion of that scene, which features an injured marine, is the low point of the movie. It is, for Kim, too easy. It is a moment which requires absolutely nothing of her and comes at a time when she is turning a corner and should most have to struggle to get there. To continue the film’s own drug analogy, it is like her being handed the keys to a brand new car after wrecking the old one while high and being told that the crash wasn’t really her fault.
For all those shortcomings, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot manages to be more good than bad. Its depiction of war, and war reporters’ lives, can be difficult to watch but feels very real and compelling. Particularly wonderful moments include Kim realizing that perhaps a bright orange bag in a warzone may make her target and doing the most mundane of things, like figuring out where and how to go to the bathroom when out with the Marines on a mission.
Beyond that, Fey and Robbie make a fantastic pairing, playing off one another beautifully. The best scenes in the movie are Tanya teaching Kim how to make it in Kabul, and what life is like for journalists who report from warzones. Freeman’s Iain is never quite as diamond in the rough as the movie would have it, but he makes his smarm work and every time Thornton appears on screen he is completely riveting.