The Taliban shuffle3/9/2016
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is a film based on Kim Barker’s bitingly funny memoir, “The Taliban Shuffle,” depicting her time as the Chicago Tribune’s South Asian bureau chief, a position she held for nearly five years.
The book is insightful, witty, wonderfully self-aware and full of the gallows humor that people naturally acquire when constantly surrounded by the fog of potential death. The film version, starring Tina Fey as Barker, comes close to aspects of that without managing to push all the way through and really hit its marks.
It’s not that the film is devoid of things to like, though. In fact, if anything, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” shows that Fey is a capable actor without every other line needing to be a quip. Her role in the film is not quite the dramatic turn of Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting,” but there are enough moments of gravitas in the film to allow Fey to show her range. And while Fey handles her role more than capably, it is her supporting staff, namely Martin Freeman and Christopher Abbott, who shine. Both men bring a level of nuance and emotion to their roles that make the scenes they are in work the best in the film. Adding to the ensemble are Alfred Molina as an Afghan government official, Billy Bob Thornton as a United States Marine general and Margot Robbie as a British television correspondent who takes it upon herself to show Fey the ropes of life in the “Kabubble,” for both better and worse.
But for as great a job as the cast does in propping the film up, the endeavor is ultimately undone by the script. Where Barker’s book is a well-rounded look at a complicated war and one woman’s life inside it, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” contents itself with a (fictional) love story and a very general look at life in Afghanistan at war. So much is cut from the source material that when Fey’s character finally comes to the realization that she has become too acclimated to the violence and danger of Kabul, the audience has not been brought along on enough of the trip with her, and the transition feels empty.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is not a polarizing film. It is neither good enough in its high points nor bad enough at its worst to make people passionate on either end. Nor is it particularly political or poignant in its message about life in wartime. “The Taliban Shuffle” is a great book. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” could have been a great movie. Instead, it opted to be a safe one.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” has been taking the most social media flak for Molina and Abbott — as good as they both are in their roles — playing Afghans, which makes the movie yet another in the long line of Hollywood productions where Middle Eastern roles are played by American and British actors with slightly deeper tans. It seems to be a lesson that studios are loathe to learn. CV