Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Posted on March 3, 2016 at 5:20 pm

Copyright 2016 Paramount
Copyright 2016 Paramount

When Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times reviewed the book that inspired “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” the memoir of journalist Kim Barker about her days covering US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, she wrote:

What’s remarkable about “The Taliban Shuffle” is that its author, Kim Barker — a reporter at ProPublica and the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009 — has written an account of her experiences covering Afghanistan and Pakistan that manages to be hilarious and harrowing, witty and illuminating, all at the same time.

It’s not just that Ms. Barker is adept at dramatizing her own adventures as a reporter — though she develops the chops of a veteran foreign correspondent, she depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war.

And now that book is a movie, and the role of Ms. Barker is being played by non-other than Tina Fey, who also co-produced. As always, her work is whip-smart and original. This is not Liz Lemon goes to war, it is an impressively sensitive dramatic performance.

But Barker’s story has been movie-ized, giving it the “inspired by” rather than “based on” designation, and removing the “r” from the character’s name to create some space. The real Barker was a print journalist, but making her a television correspondent to make it more cinematic. And the various love interests are fictional. It is disappointing that the movie makes the impetus for the assignment a combination of professional and romantic ennui. Barker was a dedicated journalist looking for a big story.

But much of the essence of it is the real deal, starting with Barker/Baker’s plan to spend three months in Afghanistan that turned into three years, and the ramped-up intensity of spending days embedded with the military, frantically editing the story, and then trying to obliterate memory and consciousness with some hard-core partying, only to start over again. Baker is inexperienced but dedicated and smart. She quickly impresses the cynical General (Billy Bob Thornton) who sees embedded journalists as a bother and a risk. And she quickly bonds with the other woman reporter (Margot Robbie), who shows her the ropes and asks very politely if she can sleep with Baker’s hunky security guy.

Alfred Molina is excellent, as always, as an Afghani official, though we should be past the time when European actors are cast as Middle Eastern characters. And maybe we do not need any more stories of Western characters discovering the mysteries of the other side of the world, with illuminating life lessons from exotic people. We don’t want this to be “Under the Tuscan Sun” but with war instead of sun-ripened Italian tomatoes, and it gets uncomfortably close at times. But the thoughtful script from longtime Fey collaborator Robert Carlock keeps the film from making war be just a growth experience for a reporter looking to shake up her life a bit, and the contrast between what the war does to the people trying to tell the story, knowing that the people back home just change the channel anyway give the story a sobering weight.

Parents should know that this movie has constant very strong, crude, and colorful language, drinking, drugs, smoking, wartime violence with some graphic images, characters injured and killed, sexual references and situations, and nudity.

Family discussion: What was the most important story Kim Baker reported? What did she mean when she said it “started to feel normal?”

If you like this, try: The book that inspired this film, The Taliban Shuffle, and the film “The Year of Living Dangerously”

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Drama Inspired by a true story Journalism War