Thursday, April 7, 2016

It's a Rich American White Lady Story - 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot'


So, going into this movie I have admit that I was pretty amped. I like Tina Fey well enough - more in some projects than others - and I've always found war reporting to be a fascinating subject, so I figured that this movie would, by combining two things I enjoy, be greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, it was not. Is not. Whatever.

While I'm not going to go so far as to say that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a bad movie, I do think that it represents a fundamentally wasted opportunity. By telling a story that is at once too serious and not serious enough for its tone and subject matter, it trivializes big issues and makes mountains out of little ones. You leave the film feeling like it was just one big almost. Almost a good film, almost a disaster, almost a compelling depiction of a job we know little about, almost an interesting look at a culture we rarely see, almost the most offensive movie you saw all month. It's a lot of almosts, but in the end it's not any one thing at all.

This gets even more confusing and a little frustrating when you understand that the film is based on a real journalist and her (mostly real) experiences working as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan from 2003-2006. 

Now, I don't know much of anything at all about this real woman, but I do know a lot about movies, and I can tell that in trying to bring her real life to the screen as a big budget motion picture they did it a disservice. Real life doesn't have narrative structure, and in the process of making this woman's life fit a two hour movie, they seem to have blended some edges and fudged some details that make it all too pat, too nice, too easy. Even when it's not easy at all.

Okay. The film follows Kim Baker (Fey), a mid-forties researcher and content writer for a big news agency. In 2003, just about when Kim is ready to give up and crawl into a hole of broken dreams and ambitions, it comes about that the network wants to send reporters to Afganistan to cover the war there. It's a big job and they are woefully understaffed. Kim's a perfect candidate because, as a semi-single woman, she has no marriage or children or really life to disrupt by going off to a foreign country for three months. And after a little bit of introspection and a lot of last minute second guessing, she goes for it. She meets her boyfriend (Josh Charles) in passing in the airport as she rushes off to go start this weird new adventure. Yay!

Once actually in Afghanistan, however, it becomes clear to Kim and to us that this is going to be harder than she thought. It's so foreign, is her first impression. Everything is loud and dirty and noisy and she doesn't understand it. She's put up at a press hotel and quickly introduced to the hard-partying lifestyle the reporters lead in Kabul, or what they call the "Kabubble". She even makes friends, chief among them Tanya (Margot Robbie), a talented and ambitious Australian reporter, and Ian (Martin Freeman), a mildly lecherous Scottish freelance photojournalist.

The film follows Kim as she covers the war, spending time embedded with some troops - mostly Billy Bob Thornton and his deadpan glare - and reaching out for interviews with members of the Afghan government. Chief among those who respond is Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina), a high up minister in the government who oversees an uncomfortably Taliban-esque ministry of culture. 

Sadiq is, unfortunately, a mishmash of stereotypes Westerners often have about governmental officials in "backwards" countries, constantly hitting on Kim and insinuating that he could get her better information if only she would show him her hair. This isn't supposed to be an insightful look at corrupt power structures either, it's played mostly for laughs.

As the film progresses we see Kim fall into a rhythm of reporting, getting good at figuring out a scoop, worming her way in where no one else can get, and generally being kickass at her job. 

But around her we see the world start to change. The network becomes less and less interested in news from Afghanistan because nothing ever seems to change. Meanwhile more of the country is becoming fundamentalist and overtly hostile to Western presence. And so Kim starts taking more and more risks to compensate, eventually alienating her one sane friend and "fixer", Fahim (Christopher Abbott).

It's about when this happens, when Fahim walks away because he firmly believes that Kim is going to get herself and possibly him killed, that Kim starts to really question what she's doing there. Her boyfriend broke up with her ages ago and she has a mild dalliance with Ian that looks like it could turn into something more, but does she really want to do this for the rest of her life? Kabul has, after a couple of years, started feel familiar to her. It's home. It's safe, even when it's completely not safe at all. The adrenaline and terror and rush of getting the story have become crutches for Kim, and she slowly comes to decide that she doesn't like the person she's becoming.

Worse, though, the network doesn't like her stories and isn't about to let her stay much longer if she can't get them a good story. This is the part of the film that felt most emotionally authentic, actually, where Kim flies back to New York to confront the network head, only to discover that they're in contract negotiations with her best friend, Tanya. That's not the awful part, actually. The awful part is when Kim figures out that Tanya was letting the awareness of these contract negotiations cloud her judgment, to the point that she went out on a mission so dangerous it got half her camera crew killed.

When Ian is kidnapped by extremists, that's the last straw. Kim calls in every favor she has, and a few she doesn't, to get the US military to go in and rescue him, embedding her camera crew with the unit, thus killing two birds with one stone. She gets love from the network, Ian is safe, and Kim finally has her senses back. It's time to leave the Kabubble before she forgets how unhealthy all of it is.

So, she does. That's basically how the movie ends. Kim moves back to the US, gets a nice safe job as a news anchor in DC, and lets her experiences in Afghanistan influence her but not define her. If all of this sounds like a halfway decent movie to you, you're not wrong, actually. It is a halfway decent movie. It's not bad. It's just also not good, and the real problem with the movie comes down to its tone.

Look, I like Tina Fey as much as the next girl, her problematic white feminism aside. She's not perfect, but she is frequently very funny and I'm down with that. But she was not cast right in this movie. Or maybe she was, but she wasn't secure or comfortable or whatever enough to avoid turning Kim Baker into a clone of Liz Lemon. A slightly more serious clone, sure, but still a clone. 

Kim mugs and winces and is awkward and is generally like a sitcom character transplanted into the middle of a war zone drama. It's jarring and it just plain doesn't work. The film as a whole would have made a lot more sense with a more dramatic tilt and an actor more comfortable with that drama at the core. Rachel Weisz or Jennifer Connelly or Liv Tyler or someone. Someone comfortable with letting those dramatic moments stand. As it is, Tina Fey's not awful, but she's too ready with a joke or a comeback and it detracts from the larger points the movie seems to want to make.

Even more frustrating, the film itself wavers between its clear ambition of being a respected drama about foreign correspondents and being a silly comedy about a ridiculous topic. The mood switches, then, are jarring, going from Kim whining about not having chapstick to being caught for the first time in a major firefight. And while I understand that they were going for a reminder that life doesn't stop being banal and stupid even in a war zone, it's clunky and they don't pull it off. Instead, Kim just comes off as conceited and annoying, and not in an interesting antiheroine kind of way.

Ultimately, this feels like the most conclusive reason I can find as to why I just plain didn't like this movie. Not that Kim is annoying, though that is true, but rather that her annoyingness is so unselfaware. Kim is a privileged rich white lady living her privileged rich white lady version of Eat Pray Love and expecting me to respect her for all of the dangerous, daring things she's done. It's frustrating because it feels like a lark for Kim. A vacation from her real life. 

And that bothers me because there are lots of people for whom this is not a break from real life, this is their real lives. I think I would have preferred seeing a movie about one of those people, not about a woman rich enough to keep an apartment in Manhattan that she doesn't live in for three years. I can't relate to Kim, and as a result her whole story feels trivial and kind of stupid. She learned how to be a good reporter? Great. Good for her. But nothing in this whole film feels like it means anything or really matters. All of Afghanistan, all of the war, everything Kim covers, just feels like so much window dressing to the most rich American white lady story ever.

I really do mean that - Afghanistan is set dressing in this film, a convenient backdrop that looks a lot like Southern California and is therefore easy to fake. There are only two Afghan characters in the whole film, Sadiq, the corrupt politician who keeps sexually harassing Kim, and Fahim, her nice kind friend who dispenses wisdom and advice but never has his own plotline onscreen. And both of them are played by white guys. 

Yes, Tina Fey, the word "caucasian" comes from the "Caucasus Mountains" which are in the vicinity of Afghanistan. But that doesn't mean that people in Afghanistan are white. More, this could have been the rare opportunity to throw some actually paid film work towards the handful of Afghan actors working in Hollywood. Or even Afghan workers working in Afghanistan! Radical idea, I know. But for an ethnic minority that struggles to even have their stories told, giving the only two meaningful roles to vaguely Mediterranean white men is straight up insulting.

The Afghan War is so devoid of meaning here as to be virtually invisible - I got a better political education from watching Charlie Wilson's War, and that's about the 1980s - and the film's general attitude about Afghanistan is that it's interesting only insofar as it's an exotic and new locale for our white heroes to fall into each others beds, make bad life choices, and pursue their career aspirations. So don't go see this film if you're looking for some substantive representation of foreign cultures.

I've heard Whiskey Tango Foxtrot described as "a warzone romcom", which is apt enough, but I struggle to think of anyone who was actually asking for one of those. By trying to make a movie that's both a semi-serious examination of the psychology behind war reporting and also a wacky screwball look at Americans behaving weirdly abroad, this movie ends up a semi-coherent mess. It still makes sense, but it's not satisfying and it feels dishonest.

Look, I've lived abroad and I know pretty well the feeling of disconnect and isolation and sadness that comes in living in a culture you know little about. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot touches on those themes, but it never does them justice. It never digs in and lets you feel Kim's lost-ness because the movie is terrified of the silence that comes when no one has a quippy comeback or snarky aside. For a movie about war reporting in Afghanistan it doesn't concern itself much with either, leaving a movie that's basically about a rich white lady having a fun little jaunt. And I'm not here for that.


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