The opening scene of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (military shorthand for “WTF”) nails what it’s like to be a foreign reporter in a war zone. A raucous party is at full blast in a packed shabby living room-turned-clubhouse in Afghanistan, strewn with reporters in various states of drunkenness and other forms of escapist debauchery, when the music is violently interrupted by a loud bomb blast somewhere outside.
The room transforms to a different sort of chaos in an instant, with everyone scrambling for their cellphones as they make way for the exit, appearing in the next moment in the middle of the bloody chaos of the bomb scene.
Based on the memoir of a reporter who lived through such scenes, the filmmakers are precise with the smallest details—from the families crying over the bodies of the injured and the dead to the Afghan man who takes advantage of the melee to cop a feel of the main character’s ass. Played by Tina Fey, she swears back at him in “survivor Dari” with a string of expletives, the most printable of which is, “Eat a fart.”
Fey plays foreign correspondent Kim Barker, who chronicled her career in a 2011 memoir, The Taliban Shuffle.
While Barker wrote for the Chicago Tribune, the film depicts Fey as a brand-new television correspondent, charting her arrival in Kabul from a newbie foreign correspondent so green that she brought an enemy-fire-magnet bright orange backpack on her first embed, to a seasoned, military-jargon-slinging veteran whose own career star rises along with a Marine colonel who returns as a general.
Speaking at the film’s Washington, D.C., premiere Tuesday, Fey said she’d first come across Barker’s work in a New York Times book review. She brought it to the attention of Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. (Fey was formerly the head writer for the show and anchored its “Weekend Update” segment.)
“Because I’m an egomaniac and a moron…I saw a New York Times review of the book that said, ‘This is like a Tina Fey character,’ so I said, ‘I’m gonna get that book,’” she said to the laughter of the audience, which included Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and several members of Congress at the U.S. Navy Memorial Burke Theater.
“It was so full of funny things that happened to her in the middle of this extreme and serious place that she also understood very well,” Fey said.
Fey, who co-produced the film with Michaels and Ian Bryce, credited SNL screenwriter Robert Carlock with doing the research on the military and Afghanistan that gave the film its “being there” feel.
“Of the things you can get wrong, the military is not one of them,” Michaels said, to the nods of Air Force troops in attendance who helped with the film.
Carlock said Barker gave him the freedom to take a little license with her life story to make a good film.
“She said, ‘I know you are going to make up things in my life,’” he said. “’I know you are going to combine characters,’ and she was OK with that.”
Barker, who is now a reporter with the The New York Times’s metro desk investigative unit, didn’t read the screenplay before seeing the finished film.
“I was closing one eye through the first half of the movie,” she said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “By the end of it, I was fully into the story and I even teared up. It was strange and surreal. I’m really happy with what they did with it.”
Carlock told The Daily Beast that he saw the story as one of “a woman who makes a pretty radical change in her life for reasons she might not entirely be aware of and becomes a stronger and a better person for it..but ultimately decides to leave this seductive and somewhat addictive lifestyle.”
Barker said she wrote the book to get Americans to pay attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“I knew if I wrote a deadly serious book, it wasn’t going to get readers, so I was thinking MASH and Catch-22…darkly comic, with an American at the center of it, so people would read it and unwittingly get a primer on Afghanistan and Pakistan,” she said.
The book has now been re-issued to coincide with the movie.
As a viewer who has a lived in war zones, there were plenty of moments when I felt was watching my own story and people I knew well—like the moment when Fey is filming a stand-up at a bomb scene, looks down, and realizes there’s a severed limb at her feet. Barker writes in her book the same thing happened to her at a bomb scene in Pakistan.
Another déjà vu moment was Fey’s impassioned arguments with the network chiefs that the story is still worth covering even if the audience has grown tired of it.
“I can’t sell Afghanistan,” one TV executive in the film explained to Fey’s character. “Your war has chronic same-shit-different-day-itis.”
The air is full of shit, literally, Fey is told when she arrives.
It is. A ring of mountains around Kabul causes inversions that trap dung burnt for fuel in the smog, combined with the smoke from cars run well past their junkyard date—a noxious mix that lands most journalists, troops, and diplomats who work in the city with bronchial maladies of one sort or another.
Though the film was shot in New Mexico, and Fey said she never got to Afghanistan, the scenes are so skillfully edited with footage from Kabul that it feels like being back there, except for the lack of the smell of the often-acrid Kabul air.
The Afghan who shares his wisdom with Fey is her “fixer”—a local who serves as translator, connector, reporter, and sometimes bodyguard for visiting journalists. The film shows how fixers at their best become family, and also offer much needed perspective to a foreigner who thinks he or she “gets it.”
It also shows how local fixers sometimes sugarcoat the story to protect their charge. When one character swears at Fey in Dari, “Suck my dick,” her fixer translates it as, “Terrible event.”
The movie also captures how journalists work in the gray zone between the groups warring against each other—traveling with U.S. troops one day, and the enemy the next.
Also, both comically and accurately, it captures how local officials confuse a foreign woman reporter’s professional interest with romantic pursuit—and how they sometimes try to blackmail the woman into a trade of sexual favors for interviews and information. It’s an ugly scenario I dealt with in every Middle Eastern country I visited in nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent.
Some inside jokes may be lost on the audience, like Afghan males seeing Fey’s character as sexy because of her masculine, not feminine qualities: “Put a turban on her and she would make a handsome boy,” an Afghan warlord says, a reference to the sickening Afghan tribal custom of warlords taking young boys as sexual partners.
There were scenes that were obviously inserted for comic effect, as when Fey’s character is drafted for the job. A TV producer gathers what he calls all the single, childless, mostly women employees into a conference room and says with the Iraq war going full tilt and all the real correspondents wanting a piece of the action there, he doesn’t have anyone to cover the war in Afghanistan. He offers it as a chance for a producer like Fey to become a TV correspondent. Fey jumps at the chance, after a moment of soul-searching on a stationary bike, trading the treadmill for the cacophony of Kabul and the chaos of a war zone.
In reality, the hodgepodge group of people who choose to go overseas are far more self-selecting, and they don’t have to be lured to the field. They are usually already there, working for any outlet that will pay them, until someone with deeper pockets notices their work.
The film neatly tracks the Afghan war’s evolution, from the time when Fey arrives just a few years after the Taliban has fallen to a CIA- and U.S. special operations-led campaign. It’s so quiet and safe that a Marine complains he doesn’t even need to chamber a round.
“This here is the forgotten war, capital F, capital W,” one Marine says to Fey’s camera.
But that calm gave way to the resurgence of the Taliban, as the U.S. focused its firepower on Iraq long before the Afghan government and military was capable of keeping the peace beyond Kabul.
There’s a fun moment showing Fey’s evolution from clueless foreigner to expert practitioner, savvy about Afghanistan and U.S. military culture, when she barters with a general for help by offering his Marines television coverage that could help them compete for funds on Capitol Hill against the famous Navy SEALs and Delta Force.
Most painfully, the film nails the self-examination all foreign correspondents eventually face, over personal glory versus professional responsibility—how to tell the story so the outside world knows what’s going on, but to do it in a way that doesn’t needlessly endanger your team for your own career advancement.
Fey’s character comes through that without getting anyone killed, but she carries the standard survivor guilt of someone who emerges from the horror of war physically unscathed.
“There’s only so much any of us have control of,” a Marine vet later tells her. “You’ve got to move on.”
Fey’s character survives the “Ka-bubble,” Kabul’s world-within-a-world of war correspondents, and ultimately cures herself of the heart-stopping curse, addiction, and privilege that is covering conflict. At least, for now.
“I still feel the pull of going overseas on a regular basis,” Barker said. “I would love to go back to Afghanistan. It’s a much grimmer, darker place and you don’t hear about it in the news.” She wants to return our focus before it again becomes the forgotten war.