In 2002, American TV journalist and news anchor Kim Barker accepted a 3 month posting to Afghanistan. She stayed four years.
Her experiences were recorded in an observational memoir entitled, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan and made into 2016 film, produced by and starring Tina Fey.
Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, radio-code for acronym WTF, captures, like M*A*S*H and other war biopics, the ‘dramedy’ or the ‘tragicomedy’ of war time experiences.
Kim, underwhelmed with the state of her career, heads as war correspondent to Kabul, Afghanistan. There, she is engulfed in the ‘other worldness’ of what is affectionately coined ‘Kabubble’ by the community of expat journalists and war reporters she encounters there.
Quickly befriended by notable British journalist, Tanya Vanderpoel [Margot Robbie], she is inducted into the rules of Kabubble. She learns not to be ripped off, black-mailed or hit up. Immersed in surreal “lost in translation” moments, newly-single Kim bonds with the curious assortment of expats and locals who guide her through life in her new home.
The story is a journey of sorts; it’s a hero story but it’s told by a woman in war time middle east. Kim is immersed in gender politics throughout, from her deployment as “childless unmarried staffer” to her induction in Kabul to the 4-10-4 rule. Woman, usually ranked an attractiveness quotient of 4 on home territory, can be ranked a 10 in Kabul, but as she is cautioned by the US Marines Commander, she will only be disappointed upon her return home to discover she is simply a 4 again.
Despite these early dismissals as an inexperienced nuisance, Kim is good at her job. Very good.
She grows close to her Afghan colleague and interpreter Fahid and is pseudo courted by the Afghan minister for Defense. She elicits candid interviews from soldiers and dares to penetrate behind closed doors of Afghan culture to interview and understand idiosyncrasies of the local people and their experiences of war.
But as with all war stories this journey is tinged with tragedy. Kim increasingly puts herself and others in danger to gain insights into wartime Kabul. A soldier she interviews is injured by mortar fire because of an interview she broadcasts with him. Concerned for her safety and aggravated by her growing boldness, Fahid an MD, cautions her that adrenaline is like a drug, and drugs destroy lives.
Kim’s story is one of journey to self realisation. She transitions from a frustrated journalist at a desk covering pedestrian daily news, to a critical player in a crisis zone. She is a change agent, who uses her unique diplomatic skills and in fact the privileges of her gender to gain access to information and connections her male colleagues could not. But there is a world weariness that grows with her as the romance of the war-zone loses its shine and tragedy cuts close to home.
Kim returns to the USA, having found her soul and passion but also having lost friendships, and her thirst for danger.
The story is refreshing but somewhat ill told. Tina Fey and Margot Robbie are delightful with Martin Freeman playing a unexpectedly charming romantic foil., Iain MacKelpie. However, the choice to cast Americans in the leading Afghan parts with stilted accents, missed a wonderful opportunity to partner with the film industry of central Asia and lend the story some genuine gravitas. One feels sub-plots are underdeveloped and the tragicomedy of war time Afghanistan not truly tapped in favour of the American obsession with the evolution of the solitary protagonist.
Nevertheless, I give Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot 3 out of 5 stars.