FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Last Tango in Kabul

by


Hot on the heels of Spotlight’s Oscars for Best Picture and Original Screenplay comes another feature about reporting. In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Tina Fey stars as Kim Baker, an unprepared cable TV producer and/or newswriter who is “drafted” to become an embedded war correspondent in Afghanistan. Although Fey is best known as a comedienne due to her Saturday Night Live stint and NBC’s droll 30 Rock, plus roles in a variety of movie comedies, and Tango is co-produced by SNL’s Lorne Michaels and written by SNL and 30 vet Robert Carlock, this Afghan-set 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 Afghan War 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 also being a serious actress to be reckoned with 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 attractive scale) when 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 (or lack of).

But 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 Islamicist insurgency, New Mexico, and Morocco, a North African nations thousands of miles away from Kabul. (News flash: Afghanistan is located in Central Asia, NOT the Middle East – although judging by what U.S. coverage there is of it, one might never be able to discern this.) 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 of course 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 seemingly never ending quagmire in a nation that has defied empires going all the way back to Alexander the (not so) Great. (A map of Afghanistan is next to the “those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” entry in the encyclopedia of fools.)

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 – although those terrorists du jour did not emerge, per se, until about five years or so later. Tango also shows without disavowing the cozy relationship between the U.S. military and “embeds,” as carefully controlled correspondents report on the troops whom their very lives depend upon. What’s next? Having members of movie crews and casts review the films they work on, with independent critics barred from sets, screenings, press days, etc.?

In addition to Fey, whose Palin impression has always tickled this reviewer’s fancy, the cast includes some notables, including Billy Bob Thornton as General Hollanek, a professional warrior who is PR savvy and cuts deals with Baker. Martin Freeman – who played Bilbo in The Hobbit film franchise and co-starred in the TV series Fargo and, interestingly, as pop culture’s most famous Afghan War veteran, Holmes’ colleague Dr. Watson in Sherlock – 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 thesp Christopher Abbott plays another purportedly Afghan character, although U.S.-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.”

Nevertheless, Tango perpetuates that age-old Hollywood tradition of setting stories (more often than not shot at studio backlots or inauthentic locations) in the “exotic” Third World, starring the story’s main characters – Westerners – with a few token supporting characters (played by one “ethnic” type or another, fobbed off as Natives) to provide (literally) local color, while the plots revolve around the white stars and their derring-do. Just consider the fact that La-La-land’s most famous African character is Lord Greystoke, an English aristocrat. In fact, 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. As the current debate about diversity (or the lack of) in moviedom continues in the wake of the Cloroxed Oscars, these points should be taken into account.

Some may find redemption in the form of female career and sexual empowerment, and the fact that the overlooked war in Afghanistan receives its due with screen time in Tango (even if it is shot at New Mexico and Morocco). The flick also has 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 to boogie to. But Tango sheds more heat than light on the Afghan War debacle. The film’s title is never explained, although Whiskey Tango Foxtrot presumably refers to call words that suggest the initials “WTF” – as in “What The Fuck?” Which seems like an appropriate question to ask about imperialist America’s endless, losing war in Afghanistan.

Journalism is currently besieged, whether by the Internet and various forms of New Media or protofascist presidential candidates calling for First Amendment restrictions. So films exalting about this beleaguered profession’s noble calling are to be welcomed, 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 probably better films about war correspondents and reporting on the frontline.

Ed Rampell is a contributor to the new book on America’s former Poet Laureate “Conversations With W.S. Merwin” and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book“.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

April 24, 2017
Mike Whitney
Is Mad Dog Planning to Invade East Syria?    
John Steppling
Puritan Jackals
Robert Hunziker
America’s Tale of Two Cities, Redux
David Jaffe
The Republican Party and the ‘Lunatic Right’
John Davis
No Tomorrow or Fashion-Forward
Patrick Cockburn
Treating Mental Health Patients as Criminals
Jack Dresser
An Accelerating Palestine Rights Movement Faces Uncertain Direction
George Wuerthner
Diet for a Warming Planet
Lawrence Wittner
Why Is There So Little Popular Protest Against Today’s Threats of Nuclear War?
Colin Todhunter
From Earth Day to the Monsanto Tribunal, Capitalism on Trial
Paul Bentley
Teacher’s Out in Front
Franklin Lamb
A Post-Christian Middle East With or Without ISIS?
Kevin Martin
We Just Paid our Taxes — are They Making the U.S. and the World Safer?
Erik Mears
Education Reformers Lowered Teachers’ Salaries, While Promising to Raise Them
Binoy Kampmark
Fleeing the Ratpac: James Packer, Gambling and Hollywood
Weekend Edition
April 21, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Diana Johnstone
The Main Issue in the French Presidential Election: National Sovereignty
Paul Street
Donald Trump: Ruling Class President
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Dude, Where’s My War?
Andrew Levine
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em
Paul Atwood
Why Does North Korea Want Nukes?
Robert Hunziker
Trump and Global Warming Destroy Rivers
Vijay Prashad
Turkey, After the Referendum
Binoy Kampmark
Trump, the DOJ and Julian Assange
CJ Hopkins
The President Formerly Known as Hitler
Steve Reyna
Replacing Lady Liberty: Trump and the American Way
Lucy Steigerwald
Stop Suggesting Mandatory National Service as a Fix for America’s Problems
Robert Fisk
It is Not Just Assad Who is “Responsible” for the Rise of ISIS
John Laforge
“Strike Two” Against Canadian Radioactive Waste Dumpsite Proposal
Norman Solomon
The Democratic Party’s Anti-Bernie Elites Have a Huge Stake in Blaming Russia
Andrew Stewart
Can We Finally Get Over Bernie Sanders?
Susan Babbitt
Don’t Raise Liberalism From the Dead (If It is Dead, Which It’s Not)
Uri Avnery
Palestine’s Nelson Mandela
Fred Nagel
It’s “Deep State” Time Again
John Feffer
The Hunger President
Stephen Cooper
Nothing is Fair About Alabama’s “Fair Justice Act”
Jack Swallow
Why Science Should Be Political
Chuck Collins
Congrats, Graduates! Here’s Your Diploma and Debt
Aidan O'Brien
While God Blesses America, Prometheus Protects Syria, Russia and North Korea 
Patrick Hiller
Get Real About Preventing War
David Rosen
Fiction, Fake News and Trump’s Sexual Politics
Evan Jones
Macron of France: Chauncey Gardiner for President!
David Macaray
Adventures in Labor Contract Language
Ron Jacobs
The Music Never Stopped
Kim Scipes
Black Subjugation in America
Sean Stinson
MOAB: More Obama and Bush
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail