Last Tango in Kabul

Hot on the heels of Spotlight (Winner of Oscars for Best Picture and Original Screenplay) comes another feature about the fine craft of journalism. In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Tina Fey stars as Kim Baker, an unprepared cable TV producer and news writer who is “drafted” to become an embedded war correspondent in Afghanistan.

Although Fey is best known for her many comedic roles, and Tango is co-produced by Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels and written by SNL and 30 Rock vet Robert Carlock, this film is actually much more of a drama than a comedy. Indeed, like most of the often-lame, nearly completely played out SNL (that zombie of the airwaves that refuses to go away and die), most of Tango isn’t funny. MASH this ain’t.

But this is by design. Tango is based on the (supposedly) true adventures of war-reporter-in-the-making Kim Barker and her autobiography The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although the war in Afghanistan winds on forever, paradoxically it is nonetheless largely forgotten by the media and in public discourse. To its credit, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot reminds us about America’s longest war, the role of reportage in a conflict zone, and of female journalists in particular. The film firmly establishes Sarah Palin’s doppelganger Fey as a serious actress in a film about a very serious subject.

The 45-year-old Fey is glammed down in the role, playing a character around her actual age who is referred to onscreen as a “4” (on the attractiveness scale) when she’s in Manhattan but a “10” in war-torn Afghanistan, where Western females are in short supply and high demand. Either Fey has bad skin or her character was made up to look that way, which enhances a sense of realism in this picture that, among other things, shows the cost of war reporting on a correspondent’s love life.

The feature’s sense of realism is undercut by the fact that while there appears to be some digital and stock footage of Afghanistan, Tango was mostly shot in that hotbed of Islamic insurgency, New Mexico, and in Morocco, a North African nation thousands of miles away from Kabul.

Of course, shooting on location in Afghanistan—where there is, you know, real shooting—would be far too dangerous. This critic is certainly not implying that stars like Fey are chickens for not making movies in conflict zones, something I myself would never do. But Tango’s realism is further diminished because like, say, 2008’s Iraq-set The Hurt Locker, it provides viewers with absolutely no context as to how Washington got bogged down in this quagmire in a nation that has defied empires all the way back to Alexander the Great.

Tango opens with a scene clearly labeled onscreen as “2006” and the ensuing bombing is, to the best of this reviewer’s ability to hear correctly, blamed on ISIS, a group that did not emerge until about five years later. Tango also shows without disavowing the cozy relationship between the US military and “embedded” reporters.

The cast includes a handful of stars, including Billy Bob Thornton as General Hollanek, a professional warrior who is PR savvy and cuts deals with Baker, and Martin Freeman, who played Bilbo in The Hobbit film franchise and co-starred in the TV series Fargo. Freeman is pop culture’s most famous Afghanistan war veteran, Holmes’ colleague Dr. Watson in television’s Sherlock. Alongside Fey, he portrays Tango’s Scottish war correspondent Iain MacKelpie. The Broadway actress Cherry Jones is relegated to a cameo as a TV news executive who clashes with Baker.

The excellent actor Alfred Molina depicts a high-ranking Afghan politician. Molina is often cast in a variety of ethnic roles, including as Sheik Amar in 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time; Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in 2002’s Frida; and even as part octopus, playing Doc Ock in 2002’s Spider-Man 2. In fact, Molina was born in London to an Italian mother and Spanish father; he’s no more Afghan than Emma Stone is Polynesian-Chinese, like her character in Aloha. Connecticut-born actor Christopher Abbott plays another purportedly Afghan character. At least US-based actor/comedian Fahim Anwar is of Afghani heritage. Sheila Vand, an actress of Iranian ancestry who appeared in 2013’s pro-CIA propaganda pic Argo, plays Lebanese journalist Shakira Khar, who quips that Baker’s back story is “the most American-white-lady story I’ve ever heard.”

Tango perpetuates that age-old Hollywood tradition of setting stories in the “exotic” Third World, starring Westerners, with a few token supporting characters played by one “ethnic” type or another to provide local color, while the plots revolve around the white stars and their derring-do.

Consider the fact that La-La-land’s most famous African character is Lord Greystoke, an English aristocrat. The next role for Tango co-star Margot Robbie, an Australian actress who plays British war correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel, is as Jane in the upcoming The Legend of Tarzan.

The movie does make some good, ironic use of rock songs—like countless Vietnam movies, modern American war pictures aren’t complete unless they have a rock ‘n’ roll score full of oldies. But Tango sheds more heat than light on the Afghanistan war debacle. The film’s title is never explained, although Whiskey Tango Foxtrot presumably refers to the initials “WTF,” an appropriate comment on America’s endless, losing war in Afghanistan.

Journalism is currently besieged, by the everything-for-free digital era, and by our protofascist presidential candidates calling for First Amendment restrictions. So films exalting this beleaguered profession’s noble calling are welcome, although in addition to Spotlight, that wonderful ode to investigative reporting, and the great Gary Webb anti-CIA biopic Kill the Messenger, documentaries such as HBO’s recent Jim: The James Foley Story, are better films about war correspondents.

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book (see: His interview with America’s former Poet Laureate is in the new book Conversations With W.S. Merwin.

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2016

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