Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on Kim Barker’s account of her experience as a journalist and single woman in Afghanistan.
By Tim Jackson
Chances are that your first reaction to the new Tina Fey vehicle, Whisky Tango Foxtrot, will be one of confusion: laughs are scrambled in matters of life and death. But that is the proper mix. The book on which the film is based, The Taliban Shuffle is equally poised between comedy and tragedy. When the volume was first reviewed in 2011, the New York Times wrote that author Kim Barker “portrays herself as a kind of Tina Fey character.” That combination of intelligence and sex appeal is what makes Barker’s account of her experience as a journalist and single woman in Afghanistan so brave and distinctive. The NYTimes review caught the eyes of Fey, who optioned the rights to the book. The film opens tomorrow.
I spoke with Barker and asked her to compare her book with the film, which I had just seen. “It was surreal to find out that my story was going to be played by Tina Fey. I’d ask my friends. ‘Guess who is playing me in the movie: she’s smart and sexy. Immediately they’d say – ‘Tina Fey?’” Barker envisions herself in the book as forthright, smart, and honest, both about the challenges of being an unseasoned overseas journalist and being single in a land where women aren’t free. “We women were like a third sex to them [Afghans],” she explains. “They didn’t know what to make of me. On the other hand, I could get access to the women in ways that male journalists could never. And there was access to the men because all the males were so curious about me.”
Most of the characters in the film are hybrids of those in the book. Margo Robbie’s Tanya Vanderpoel stands in for the presence of a number of female journalists. There is a wry performance by Billy Bob Thornton as General Hollanek, and Alfred Molina is terrific as the seductive Ali Massoud Sadiq, based on the former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose efforts to seduce Barker were outrageous and comical. Inappropriate pinching and touching by Pakistani men, and even women, was something she found herself forced to put up with. Still, the author fell in love with the country and its people. “It was a challenge as a journalist,” she recalls. “You get drawn in; something about the country you just fall in love with. The people are so friendly and its women are so strong. I challenge you to find stronger women anywhere.”
I asked about the final scene in the film (no spoilers here) where she says good-bye to her driver, Fahim Ahmadzai. The character is based on her real guide, Fahim, whom she grew to love as a friend. The scene with a puppy-eyed and bearded Christopher Abbott is quite moving. She says: “When I saw that scene at the premier, I had to leave. It really got to me.”
There were horrific bombings and kidnappings in Afghanistan. There was a lack of U.S support after the invasion of Iraq when it came to attempting to understand of the realities of life in Pakistan. Even Barker’s newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, wasn’t always all that interested. In the film, her occupation has been changed to TV anchor: “I understand. It plays better. Once the rights are sold it’s their film. They are using different things to tell the same story.” Part of that narrative is that Barker led an active social life, including ongoing relationships, throughout her time overseas. The party scene provided much needed relief from brutal realities; the clash of cultures contributes unexpected wit to both the book and the film. She also brings unexpected flourishes of self-depreciating humor to The Taliban Shuffle: “I knew I had turned into this almost drowning caricature of a war hack: working, swearing, and drinking myself through life and relationships.”
As for what she learned, Barker recalls, “I became much stronger and more independent. This is a fish out of water story. I was a water carrier, not a visitor in a strange new world. I wanted people to learn about Afghanistan.” I asked what she thinks Fey will want for her audience. Responding quickly she says, “That their money was well spent.”
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.