Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

My wife and I saw this film last weekend.  It was a disappointment.  The film, which is military code for ‘what the f**k’, is based on the memoir, The Taliban Shuffle, written by Kim Barker, about her assignments as a war correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  I haven’t read the book; I read an article about Ms Barker and the book that appeared in The Telegraph.  The book sounded interesting and thoughtful, with a black sense of humour.  In fact, the New York Times book review confirmed this.


Kim Barker

The film, which has Tina Fey playing Ms Barker, begins with her volunteering for an assignment in Afghanistan to escape her humdrum assignment of covering minor stories; besides: she is single with no children.  She is thrown into cheap accommodation in the green zone with a lot of other expatriates, some of whom are competing for the same stories.  A US Marine general regards her as an inexperienced liability, but she achieves credibility by gaining candid interviews with US soldiers, putting herself in harms way to capture video footage, and by gaining the respect of some Afghans.  Eventually, she realises that being a war correspondent is not in her best long term interest, and she returns to the States.


                                                                                                                                   Tina Fey

I had three problems with WTF.  First of all there was too much emphasis on the partying going on among the correspondents and other expats.  The film left me with the impression that every night was an Animal House blow-out.  While I’m sure there was uninhibited drinking and casual sex, the emphasis on that aspect of life as a war correspondent made it difficult to position the film as a serious commentary, which Ms Barker’s book clearly is.

Secondly, the dialogue was difficult to follow.  Actors were speaking at a frantic pace and using lots of slang.  Eventually, I realised I could understand what was going on by just watching the video.  If the audience can’t follow the dialogue, why include it?

Third, and most important, the film was a series of events, some funny, some sad, some thought provoking, some totally forgettable, without a unifying theme or message, except that the danger involved in covering a war can be addicting.  Ms Barker, in her book draws several sobering conclusions about the ‘Af-Pak’ region, and why the West was doomed to fail in its strategy of involvement.

I will say that Tina Fey is engaging in the lead role, Christopher Abbott is credible as her Afghan fixer, and Martin Freeman does a fine job as the lustful, flippant Scottish correspondent.  Some of the video footage is worth seeing, and there are some examples which illustrate the huge culture gap, but these opportunities are largely lost.

Freedom of Speech

Most of us are in favor of freedom of speech; we regard it as one of the great benefits of living in the West.  I, as a writer, am bound to be a strong supporter of free speech.  But recently, there have been at least three categories of objection to freedom of speech:

  1. Government, and other public bodies, which do not want certain items of their information exposed
  2. Individuals (mostly celebrities) who do know want their actions to be publicized
  3. Religious groups who do not wish to see any criticism of their beliefs

As a writer, I am not involved in categories 1 & 2, but I can’t resist commenting on each of them.  Regarding Category 1, the usual objection by a governmental body to disclosure of information is: ‘The public don’t need to know’ or some similar excuse.  In my experience, the real reason is; ‘We’ll be embarrassed if that is disclosed’.  To which my response would be: “All the more reason to disclose it!”  I believe that the only legitimate reason not to disclose the requested information is ‘national security’.  Not infrequently, the body will protest that disclosure represents a financial burden.  If this is actually the case (reams of information, much photocopying, etc), I believe the requesting party should reimburse the costs (but only the costs – no discouragement fees).

Category 2 has been in the news lately with some individuals obtaining court orders prohibiting the media from publicizing acts (usually sexual) which they don’t want ‘people’ (read their wives) knowing, or about which they feel embarrassed.  I have no sympathy whatsoever for these individuals.  The appropriate remedy for these problems is not to prohibit their disclosure but to avoid creating them in the first place.

Category 3 is one where I’m involved.  In several of my books, my characters have criticized some aspects of religious culture or practices.  I have, for example, characters saying that Catholicism is nearly ‘polytheistic’, because Catholics are encouraged to pray to saints, rather than to God.  This being similar to Aztec or ancient Greek beliefs in multiple Gods.  My characters have also said that Islam, unlike Christianity, has no formal, overriding instruction to love your fellow men.  They have also said that Muslims can be too defensive of their religion, thereby conveying the impression that Islam requires protection.  Undoubtedly, some Christians and Muslims would object to these comments, but they are made ‘in good faith’ without any intention to insult or injure.  In my view, no religion is perfect; only God is perfect, but no religion should be mocked.  While I defend the right of the Charlie Hebdo journalists to publish demeaning caricatures of the Prophet, I consider it to be insulting, stupid, and in bad taste to do so.  I am currently reading Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.  (Better late than never.)  In it, there is a character Mahound, who is a weak, indecisive prophet, who speaks with an angel Gibril, who doesn’t know what to say.  I haven’t read enough of the book to know what happens with these characters, but my reaction, so far, is that Rushdie is making fun of Islam, and, in particular, of the Satanic Verses in the Qur’an.  I’m not a Muslim, but I don’t think it’s funny, or amusing.  If Rushdie wants to say these kinds of things, he has a right to do so.  But, it’s intentionally insulting to Muslims to do so.  Back to my point about the defensiveness of Islam, I consider it a gross overreaction to sentence Rushdie to death.  If I were a Muslim who felt insulted by The Satanic Verses, I would tell the author how I felt, ask for an apology, and read nothing more that he wrote.  (But since I’m a Christian, I’ll continue reading.)