“Well, we saw it for Tina!” said my dad said as we drove home after seeing “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” starring the aforementioned Tina Fey (“Sisters”). “We saw it because we like her.”
I can’t say this is untrue. When I saw the ads for “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” starring Fey, produced by her SNL mentor Lorne Michaels and her husband Jeff Richmond and written by her “30 Rock” show runner Robert Carlock, there was a part of me hoping it would be the story of Liz Lemon working as a journalist in Afghanistan. That part of me, the same part that would fall asleep listening to Tina Fey’s book “Bossypants” on my CD player in high school, was not disappointed.
Based on the book “The Taliban Shuffle” by the film’s real life inspiration Kim Barker, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” follows journalist Kim Baker, who leaves her uninspired life in New York City for an international assignment in Kabul. Her arrival is chaotic and reflected in the turbulent and shaky editing, which quickly calms as Kim adjusts to life in the “Kabubble,” as the characters affectionately call journalistic life in the city. Kim instantly bonds with Tanya Vanderpol (Margot Robbie, “Focus”) the only other female journalist living in their guest house, which more closely resembles a continuous collegiate frat party than a living space for adults. But that’s the dichotomy of womanhood in the Kabubble — it’s acceptable, even encouraged, for these women to get blackout drunk and wild in the guest house, but it’s equally acceptable for strangers to call them whores if their heads are uncovered outside of the house.
Kim embeds herself in the military presence in Afghanistan and finds herself surprisingly addicted to the adrenaline rush of war reporting, much to the chagrin of both the top Marine officer in the area (Billy Bob Thornton, “Our Brand Is Crisis”) and her “fixer” Fahim (Christopher Abbott, “James White”). Kim and Fahim’s cultural differences provide fertile ground for witty one-liners about their personalities and relationship — she’s a cynical workaholic from New York and he’s a traditional young Afghan man trying to keep her safe. But the truly noteworthy aspect of their relationship is its caring yet platonic nature. There are so few filmic models of emotional connections between men and women without sexual motives, not just in the industry as a whole, but also in this movie. Pretty much every other man besides Fahim propositions Kim to have sex with him. Whether it’s a licentious Afghan attorney general (Alfred Molina, “Love Is Strange”) casually showing her the bed in his office or a photographer trying to look down her shirt when she’s passed out after a particularly rowdy party, Kim is constantly negotiating the gender politics of adapting culturally while successfully doing her job.
Fey, with plenty of previous experience in roles arbitrating the complexity of femininity in the workplace, strikes this balance almost perfectly. Before the third act, during which both the audience and Kim realize she’s been in the Kabubble for too long, the film strikes a harmonious balance between romantic comedy and war story.
And yet, critics and audiences alike are putting “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” on trial for whitewashing its Afghan actors. Racism and problems with diversity are ubiquitous in Hollywood today, from the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic to the recent “Gods of Egypt,” in which the gods in the North African nation are predominantly white. But “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is different. Tina Fey, who was also a producer on the film, says she requested a native speaker for the part of Fahim, but that the casting directors chose Christopher Abbott as the best person for the job. There are also the specificities of Afghanistan that distinguish it from other cases of whitewashing. Afghans can be Caucasians, making it conceivable that someone from Afghanistan could resemble Abbott. But there’s also a question of safety for the actors and their families. The film’s inspiration, Kim Barker, tweeted that “The most ‘authentic’ people to play Fahim and Sadiq are Afghans, not people from the Middle East, or Pakistan or India…But what happens if there’s a reaction in Afghanistan against that actor’s family? … The Afghan boys who starred in the movie “The Kite Runner” had to go into hiding.” She went on to say that “This movie looks like Afghanistan! And the extras were Afghans speaking Dari and Pashto. That made me happy.” While there should be an effort to improve diversity in cinema today, there was never a moment in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” that didn’t feel authentic to its inspirations or locations.
“Whiskey Foxtrot Tango” is a balancing act, teetering between absurdist comedy and a tragedy in a war-torn country in which almost 10,000 American troops still remain. The movie doesn’t always stay upright, but Fey’s trademark sense of humor pulls it back up when it falters.