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:
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
A Blow for Peace and Democracy: Why the British Said No to Europe
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Jeffrey St. Clair
Lines Written on the Occasion of Bernie Sanders’ Announcement of His Intention to Vote for Hillary Clinton
Norman Pollack
Fissures in World Capitalism: the British Vote
Paul Bentley
Mercenary Logic: 12 Dead in Kabul
Binoy Kampmark
Parting Is Such Sweet Joy: Brexit Prevails!
Elliot Sperber
Show Me Your Papers: Supreme Court Legalizes Arbitrary Searches
Jan Oberg
The Brexit Shock: Now It’s All Up in the Air
Nauman Sadiq
Brexit: a Victory for Britain’s Working Class
Brian Cloughley
Murder by Drone: Killing Taxi Drivers in the Name of Freedom
Ramzy Baroud
How Israel Uses Water as a Weapon of War
Brad Evans – Henry Giroux
The Violence of Forgetting
Ben Debney
Homophobia and the Conservative Victim Complex
Margaret Kimberley
The Orlando Massacre and US Foreign Policy
David Rosen
Americans Work Too Long for Too Little
Murray Dobbin
Do We Really Want a War With Russia?
Kathy Kelly
What’s at Stake
Louis Yako
I Have Nothing “Newsworthy” to Report this Week
Pete Dolack
Killing Ourselves With Technology
David Krieger
The 10 Worst Acts of the Nuclear Age
Lamont Lilly
Movement for Black Lives Yields New Targets of the State
Martha Rosenberg
A Hated Industry Fights Back
Robert Fantina
Hillary, Gloria and Jill: a Brief Look at Alternatives
Chris Doyle
No Fireworks: Bicentennial Summer and the Decline of American Ideals
Michael Doliner
Beyond Dangerous: the Politics of Climate
Colin Todhunter
Modi, Monsanto, Bayer and Cargill: Doing Business or Corporate Imperialism?
Steve Church
Brexit: a Rush for the Exits!
Matthew Koehler
Mega Corporation Gobbles Up Slightly Less-Mega Corporation; Chops Jobs to Increase Profits; Blames Enviros. Film at 11.
David Green
Rape Culture, The Hunting Ground, and Amy Goodman: a Critical Perspective
Ed Kemmick
Truckin’: Pro Driver Dispenses Wisdom, Rules of the Road
Alessandro Bianchi
“China Will React if Provoked Again: You Risk the War”: Interview with Andre Vltchek
Christy Rodgers
Biophilia as Extreme Sport
Missy Comley Beattie
At Liberty
Ron Jacobs
Is Everything Permitted?
Cesar Chelala
The Sad Truth About Messi
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail