Thursday, March 10, 2016

What a Charlie Foxtrot: Tina Fey and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

I’m starting to feel like this is normal. You know it isn’t, right?” says reporter Kim Baker (Tina Fey) to Scottish photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), reflecting on her three years as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan. From her subject position as a 40+ single New York copywriter, the statement is accurate. For the 30.5 million people who live in Afghanistan, however, “this,” a life marred by war, violence, unstable politics and pervasive patriarchy, is normal. Such is the irredeemable problem that can’t be, shouldn’t be, overlooked at the heart of a frustratingly enjoyable film.

Based on an assuredly less egregious memoir called The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by New York Times reporter Kim Barker, dramedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot follows Tina Fey as Kim Baker (that pesky “r” omitted in the screenplay presumably to avoid confusing a fake woman with a real woman in Google searches), a bored, desk-bound writer who jumps at an offer to be an on-camera war journalist in Kabul, Afghanistan. Despite having zero experience in front of a camera, Baker is offered the position precisely because she is childless, unmarried, and over 40 in others words, because she is “expendable” by North American standards. An eye roll worthy epiphany at the gym causes her to view her suggested shortcomings as an opportunity for change. Leaving a house key for her “mildly depressive” boyfriend (Josh Charles) so that he can water her plants, Kim ships out to Afghanistan for a brief stint that inevitably stretches into three years. 

The Afghanistan that greets Kim when she lands overseas is really two Afghanistans. The first is the one she expects: a war-torn, dusty land where women must cover their hair in public or risk derogatory remarks. The second is what the assortment of ex-pats in Kabul call “the Kabubble,” a sprawling private space with the ambiance of a frat house where a constant barrage of sex, drugs, and partying help pass the time between newsworthy events. Kim’s culture shock as she acclimatizes to each of these radically different spaces and then tries to walk the line between them with grace is the driving force behind Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. It endlessly compares and contrasts public versus private life in the Middle East, or rather, whatever this place is that Robert Carlock, Tina Fey, and Lorne Michaels are trying to pass off as the Middle East. 

The “Kabubble” boasts a colourful cast of characters, some based on real-life counterparts from Barker’s memoir, some invented for the big screen. The addition of Margot Robbie as impossibly attractive London reporter Tanya Vanderpoel is one of the more prominent creative flourishes adorning the original text. While Robbie and Fey have great chemistry, screenwriter Robert Carlock (30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) tripped at the finish line. Despite what the audience is told are dramatic physical differences (Vanderpoel being a bombshell while Fey as Baker continues to feign homeliness), the two become fast friends before Vanderpoel ultimately falls in line with the trajectory every hot best friend character has followed since time immemorial and transforms into a backstabbing rival. It would be so refreshing to see two women be mutually supportive allies, especially in the doubly masculine setting of a male-dominated profession temporarily embedded in a patriarchal cultural climate. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot almost had it but ultimately gives in to the common and toxic notion that the primary relationship between all women is a competitive one, whether they’re competing for resources, men, or a job. 

Martin Freeman and Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

To complete The Taliban Shuffle’s Hollywood transformation, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s creative team added a love interest for Baker in the form of the aforementioned Scottish photographer, Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman, Sherlock). While this amendment has deservedly come under fire for being unnecessary and predictable (the implication being that no audience would care about a badass female reporter in Afghanistan if her story didn’t include romance), the love story didn’t strike me as particularly unwelcome. It’s appropriately low key, never overshadows the main plot, and is scarcely hinted at until the second half of the film. Freeman, donning a Celtic scarf and a Scottish brogue, is delightfully human, relentlessly charming, and still just as funny as he was in the BBC's The Office. Fey and Freeman play well off each other and I commend Carlock for, at the very least, pairing Foxtrot’s female lead with a man who doesn’t have to save her. 

All in all, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot creates a dilemma for the critical audience. The truth is that it’s an unexpectedly enjoyable film but also deeply problematic. It caters to North American “white lady” feminist sensibilities by featuring a determined, resilient woman who shatters expectations, makes mistakes, and grows into an independent force to be reckoned with. For all the women who have been brainwashed into believing their worth is tied to marriage, beauty, and being effortlessly perfect in everything they aspire to do, Kim Baker is a great role model. Looking at Whiskey Tango Foxtrot from the perspective of intersectional feminism, however, reveals an unsettling degree of exoticism and a kind of ethnocentric North American narcissism. Colleague and casual acquaintance Shakira (Persian-American actress Sheila Vand of 2014's A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, who is woefully underused in this film) is as close as Kim comes to engaging with an actual Middle Eastern woman as an equal, and even then, Shakira is another correspondent in the “Kabubble” and their conversation is about how exotic her name sounds. Every native Afghan woman in the film is dismissed as being an “Ikea Bag,” a deeply offensive allusion to the blue burqas they wear to walk the streets. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the most prominent Afghan men in Foxtrot are caricatures played by two white guys: Christopher Abbott as wise, sage-like fixer and buddy Fahim, and Alfred Molina as slimy, silly politician Ali Massoud Sadiq. 

At the end of the day, the largest problem with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is that uses the conflict in Afghanistan exclusively as a backdrop for one privileged white woman’s experience of self-discovery. Much in the manner of Eat, Pray, Love, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an unrealistic and self-absorbed example of the West’s tendency to consume and feed off the East when its own spiritual or material resources are exhausted. The difference is that Foxtrot is a better film but it’s up to the audience to decide whether that makes its shocking Orientalism more forgivable or less. 

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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