“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” Captures the Life of a War Correspondent

It is easy to take war reporters for granted. You go online, scan the latest headlines out of the Middle East and then check out that video of kittens doing something ridiculously cute.

Yet, that headline (and the actual story below it) likely came at the risk of someone’s life—often multiple peoples’ lives.

Tina Fey brings the autobiographical book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by war correspondent Kim Barker to life in this film by the same name. Fey plays Kim Baker (note the subtle difference in last names), a behind-the-scenes news writer who takes advantage of an opportunity to head out into the field to cover the 2003 U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

Though an experienced newswoman back in the States, she finds she’s in way over her head—much like American military and political policy—with her boots on the ground in Afghanistan. As the movie progresses, you see not only her skill as a war reporter increase, you see how the war begins to affect her and how the war correspondents live in a war zone. The stress of life-and-death war coverage exposes itself in the adrenaline addiction that forms by taking risky assignments, drinking heavily and, for many, having lots of sex.

More than gunfire and parties, there’s a sense of futility, as the war correspondents, military leaders and Afghan officials see American interest in the war wane for the newer war in Iraq and other events back home in the States. Yet, with Afghanistan still in crisis, the frustration of those still in the country mounts, as it appears the American government neither cares nor is engaged in the war it continues fighting.

Fey is excellent in this dramatic role. She showcases her serious acting chops during her subtle transition from wide-eyed newcomer to the veteran warzone correspondent to becoming a reporter on the edge of burnout. The film has an undercurrent of dark comedy, which is consistent with the real-life work of a war correspondent and for anyone stuck for long in a war zone. However, the film isn’t a straight comedy as the trailer portrays it.

Broken long-distance relationships, life-threatening encounters with warlords, cultural misunderstandings, working with fixers and translators you trust with your life, the unpredictability of a fire fight and the powerful consequences for seemingly innocuous actions. This movie features it all with truth and integrity.

True, the film changes a few things, weaving in a few experiences from other war correspondent biographies and adding a romance that didn’t really happen. The real Kim Barker was a Chicago Tribune reporter, not a TV news reporter. However, Barker has stated in interviews how accurately the movie remains to the book and actual events. It’s a rare feat for Hollywood.

So if you’re looking for a serious drama based on real events, imbed yourself with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Nathaniel Cerf often finds the real-life biographies of war correspondents to be infinitely more exciting than many adventures made up for the movies. You can reach him at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.