Like most films set in battle zones, including many that were intended to be anti-war, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot glamorizes armed conflict by stressing the romantic intensity of life lived and relationships forged under the shadow of death, an intensity that carries an atavistic appeal for young people hungry to test their mettle. But by making the fantasy of proving oneself by heading off to a foreign war its central theme, then taking an honest look at some of the messier ethical dilemmas that lurk beneath that narrative, the film lopes into some surprisingly complicated and thought-provoking territory.
Journalist Kim Barker, whose book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan the film is based on, has been slightly renamed and made somewhat more Hollywood-friendly. Kim Baker (Tina Fey) works for visuals-heavy TV rather than boring old print and has a best friend, Tanya (Margot Robbie), who’s a composite of a few of the fellow journalists Barker befriended during her three years in Afghanistan and Pakistan—and apparently a few clicks more gorgeous than any of them. Her stint has also been simplified, as the Pakistan portions have been excised for no reason it seems other than to prevent the story from getting too complicated.
Screenwriter Robert Carlock, though, has a knack for conveying the essence of an encounter or the progress of a relationship in brief yet lived-in exchanges or interactions. The film is also full of well-chosen details, like the bright orange backpack Baker brings to Afghanistan, marking her as a battle-ignorant newbie, and the child who begs in the streets of Kabul by crying over a crate of broken eggs, a moment that Baker reacts to with an evolving range of actions and emotions as she gets to know the city better.
The main story is Baker’s acclimatization to life in the “Kabubble” created by Kabul’s foreign journalists and ambassadors and their posse, her increasing competence and confidence as a field reporter, and her growing attachment to individuals such as Iain (Martin Freeman), a cute curmudgeon of a Scottish photojournalist, and Fahim (Christopher Abbott), her quietly intelligent Afghan fixer. But the futility of the war and the U.S.’s nation-building efforts in the region also come into focus, as does the stark contrast between Baker’s empowered journey and the severely curtailed opportunities available to Afghan women. Both of these themes converge in a recurrent subplot about a village Baker visits twice as an embedded reporter with a group of marines, who keep building wells there that keep getting blown up—for a surprising reason that Baker is able to uncover only thanks to her gender.
Whisky Tango Foxtrot’s feminist perspective checkmates the frat-boy misogyny and machismo that too often mar films set in combat zones. In place of M*A*S*H’s slut-shaming of “Hotlips” Hoolihan, we get a battle between Iain and Baker’s studly but dimwitted bodyguard, Nic (Stephen Peacocke), for Baker’s affections, in which both men have their moments of dominance and slightly comic embarrassment. Also refreshing is Baker’s capacity for frank self-assessment, even if it isn’t always in the moment.
When Baker grows dangerously addicted to the adrenaline rush of chasing risky stories, Fahim calls her out on it—and quits, refusing to risk his own life since she’s not yet ready to concede that he’s right. And when Iain is kidnapped by a fundamentalist fringe group, the rescue mission Baker coordinates to save him, which could easily have been presented as celebratory, is played as equal parts quixotic (all that firepower to rescue a freelance Scottish photojournalist?) and political. Baker talks a general (Billy Bob Thornton) into staging the raid by pointing out how good it could be for his marines to get that story on TV—and he, aware that she hasn’t had a story aired for the past year, drily replies: “Pretty good for you too.” And that’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot in a nutshell for you: smart, funny, and bracingly frank.