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'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' Is an American White Lady Story

Kim (Tina Fey) is representative of many Americans who judge the cultures America has invaded, and is unable to understand the damage caused.

Whisky Tango Foxtrot

Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Cast: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Peacocke, Sheila Vand, Evan Jonigkeit, Fahim Anwar, Josh Charles, Cherry Jones
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-03-04 (General release)
UK date: 2016-04-22 (General release)

"I like your mouthiness." A TV reporter in pursuit of a story, Kim (Tina Fey) sits across from her current possible interviewee, a government official in Kabul named Sadiq (Alfred Molina). It's 2002 or so, and she's just compared his policies to those of the Taliban, an accusation that gives him pause for no good reason except to set up their relationship going forward.

So okay, "going forward" probably overstates the case in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. As does "relationship", which suggests that Sadiq's perpetual creepy flirtations and Kim's hapless resistance constitute something more than shtick. Loosely based on a memoir by Kim Barker, the movie is interested in sorting out how she came to be a reporter in Afghanistan or the various complexities of her experiences there.

Instead, it offers a series of episodes -- Kim lands at Kabul airport, Kim spends a first night on the base, Kim records her first vehicle explosion, Kim parties, and then parties some more, Kim finds a boyfriend, a Scottish reporter named Iain (Martin Freeman). In the end, she learns some familiar lessons about how the Kabubble conjures illusions, having to do with war and courage, journalism and morality, art and purpose. But her film also offers instruction that is less helpful, though equally familiar, in its stereotypes and lack of imagination.

Your disappointment only expands at the sight of Tina Fey in the middle of this mess. (Because: who doesn’t like Tina Fey?) Granted, Fey's playing a designated naïf: Kim is introduced as a 40-something New Yorker who stumbles on an opportunity to cover the war as it's beginning, her political, cultural, and sexual ignorance symbolizing a certain American-ness. This might make Kim's role sound a little like Kate's in Sicario, but with jokes. The jokes here aren't incidental, however; they're illustrative of the problem that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot exemplifies rather than interrogates, the problem whereby Americans galumph into life situations or metaphors and impose their judgments and wills.

In the olden days, the figure of the Ugly American might have been used to critique a colonialist, imperialist or nativist American project, a toxic self-importance or willful blindness. Now that figure is more like a norm, a lens on a world in need of salvaging by the benevolent US or rom-commy route for a woman to find herself. This particular route has Kim convincing a US Marines colonel (Billy Bob Thornton) to mount an undoubtedly pricey and complicated rescue mission for the recently kidnapped Iain (conducted under Harry Nilsson's "Without You"), leading first to their heartfelt reunion and then to a less romantic realization. Never mind that their romance is from its first moments reduced to her apparently uncontrollable lusting made visible in a pair of dogs who regularly grunt outside her window, and then a couple of blind-drunk encounters and too-cute conversations during morning-after teeth-brushing sessions.

That’s not to say that all of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is focused on Kim's sex life. She makes some time as well to report for her TV station back home, to embed with troops (no critique of the embed program here), and compete with the younger, more beautiful Tanya (Margot Robbie) for stories (because: only women compete for the same stories?). When she narrates the story of how she decided to come to Afghanistan -- riding a stationary bike at the gym, she realizes she's been doing it for a decade and going nowhere -- fellow journalist Shakira (Sheila Vand) calls it "the most American white lady story I've ever heard."

While Kim might see this, the movie cannot, and so it proceeds to tell her white lady story, now set against a set of anonymous locals rather than lines of treadmills and elliptical machines. The movie doesn't think too hard about what it means for women to work with men in war zones, except as they party or travel or sleep together. No one talks about different stakes or different experiences, even the difference that seems obvious here, that women in Afghanistan face specific constraints and expectations. Further no one, Kim included, spends any time on screen talking with Afghan women: the one scene where she's called inside a room filled with female villagers cuts away when they begin to speak to her.

Apart from her intermittent encounters with Sadiq, who hardly seems to represent Afghan traditions or anything else, Kim's most visible interactions with a local concern her fixer Fahim (Christopher Abbott). Soft-spoken and protective, Fahim absorbs Kim's sweeping cultural aspersions without much pushback. "I know you like your women to be beautiful, mysterious Ikea bags," she says out loud, a few scenes before she and her male camera person and security guard head off to Kandahar in search of news. For this adventure, she needs "new clothes", as Fahim puts it, meaning that she dons a burka and so solicits approving gazes from local men.

The new clothes produce a new view for Kim, underlined for you by a number of close-ups of her eyes inside the veil, looking out from what Fahim calls the "blue prison". Trouble ensues when she uses her anonymity to enter an all-men's space but still, Kim can't grasp Fahim's upset at her risk-taking. She's an American white lady, after all, judging the culture she's invaded, unable to understand the damage she causes or the redemption she finds, in spite of herself.


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