So Chris and I went to see Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot this weekend, and before we get started, we should probably say: A, Yes, we totally think you should see the movie (so if you don’t want spoilers, um, bookmark this and read it after); and B, Sorry, Kim Barker, but the movie is much better than the book.
We’re going to list some elements of the adaptation that really worked here, and some that didn’t. But before we get started with that, we kind of need to address the elephant in the room… because it’s sitting on our heads. My friend Nasser, who happens to be a Pakistani-American actor, pointed out the other day that two of the Arab characters in this movie are played by white guys. (The Washington Post talked about it, too.) And no, they’re not white guys of Arab descent. They’re just, like, white people who happen to have brown eyes. Ouch.
The first actor is Alfred Molina. And Alfred Molina is a fantastic actor who has, of course, made a career of playing all sorts of ethnicities, from Egyptian to Russian to Mexican to Iranian, and back again so many times that my Pakistani friend said of him, “He’s basically our uncle at this point.” That said, this role should have been cast with an Afghan actor. There was just no reason not to offer the part to someone from the region, and I’m not really sure why Bernard Telsey, the casting director, didn’t fight for that choice.
The second actor is Christopher Abbott, who plays Fahim in the movie (Farouq in the book; all the characters, even Kim Barker—Baker in the movie—have had name changes as the movie is so largely fictionalized.) Chris and I both had to agree, this guy is a really good actor. And the part needed a good actor, because it’s a tough role. He has some big scenes with Tina Fey in which he basically provides the moral compass of the film. He’s deferential, shy, smart, deeply traditional; an educated man torn between his patriotism and religion and his modern sensibilities as a doctor. This actor really nailed it. And frankly, had I not known he was from Connecticut, I never would have guessed it. He looks like my ex-boyfriend, who’s Armenian.
But none of this changes the fact that I’m sure an Arab actor could have been found who would have been capable of all those things. And to deny a great Arab actor a chance to play a part like this in a major movie, in 2016, just doesn’t make any sense. It’s funny, because this movie actually cast just about everybody, with the exception of Tina Fey, as being from a place they’re not from.
There’s one scene in the movie where Margot Robbie, an Australian, is doing a British accent; Martin Freeman, a Brit, is doing Scottish; Stephen Peacocke, an Australian, is doing a Canadian pretending to be from New Zealand; and Christopher Abbott, the American, is doing Afghani. I couldn’t help but watch the scene waiting for one of them to get thrown and do the wrong accent. And I guess at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if white people pretend to be white people from somewhere else. But it does matter to the real Afghan actor who wasn’t in the scene at all.
Okay, we’re moving on.
First, some context. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (WTF—get it?) is based on the book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, who was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in the mid-2000s. She goes to Afghanistan for what is supposed to be “a couple of months,” and ends up living there, and then in Pakistan, for over three years. (The book goes into a lot of detail about how she actually “lived” in India, but would go to Afghanistan for work, and how her boyfriend kind of lived in India with her too, but she never saw him and eventually dumped him… yadda yadda yadda… frankly, a lot of the book doesn’t really go anywhere. The movie wisely cuts all that.)
By Miss Barker’s own admission, she becomes a junkie for Afghanistan, a place she comes to think of as home. The adrenaline rush of reporting, of the ongoing war, the camaraderie of living in close quarters with the other reporters, the shared high of brief affairs with men who also partake in her addictions (the boyfriend in India doesn’t last)—all of it combines to make her uncomfortable in the States, uneasy doing anything but living from one “fix” to the next, her fixes being great stories.
Despite the missed vacations, despite everything, this still felt more like home than anywhere else. Only in this madness was it possible to feel such purpose. I was paid to watch history. In a small way, I felt that I was part of something much bigger, like I mattered in a way I never did back home. -Kim Barker, The Taliban Shuffle
The book, however, despite all this, is a bit of a slog to read. The reasons are really twofold. One, as with all non-fiction books that aren’t written by Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air), who is really a novelist who happens to write novels about things that actually happened, stories about real life have an annoying tendency to not occur according to a traditional three-act structure with a satisfying love story to thematically tie all the life lessons together. Life is sloppy, aimless, boring, self-aggrandizing and, ultimately, deeply unsatisfying. (Wow, that went dark fast. Sorry.)
And the second reason the book is a tough read: it’s about Afghanistan. You know, the one with the warlords and the Taliban and where women aren’t allowed to go outside without wearing laundry. Where there are 50 recognized sects of Islam and they all want to kill each other as soon as they’re done killing us. And Miss Barker, who is really a journalist at heart and not a novelist, goes into a LOT of detail about the names of all the people she meets and the sects they belong to. And frankly, you can’t help but think that even if you got an A in Afghanistan 101, the syllabus would just change by next semester anyway.
And then she goes to Pakistan.
Okay, so herewith, Chris and I are going to discuss the TOP THREE THINGS THAT WORK IN WTF:
1. FLESHING OUT HER WORLD
REBECCA: In the book, Miss Barker doesn’t bother going into a lot of detail about what things and places really look like, so it’s very hard to get a visual sense of the “Fun House,” as they call it, where she lives part of the time in the book (all of the time in the movie). The brothels they visit are also vague in the book. Are they tiny holes in the wall, large nightclubs? Can Western women walk into these places without a headscarf? Can they go out at night without an escort? The set design of the movie really made it clear what was so exciting and fun about the lifestyle there.
Early in the book, Miss Barker interviews a soldier named Coughlin and quotes him as saying he’s a bit bored in Afghanistan, a quote which later gets him transferred to a hot zone where he gets his legs blown off. In the book, she feels badly about it. But in the movie, we actually go and see Coughlin again, back home in the States, and he pretty much sums of the theme of the movie: War is chaos. No one person can take responsibility for creating it or perpetrating it.
CHRIS: I liked that there were pieces in the film that were definitely from the book: a nod to the [super depressing Kabul] zoo with a clip on TV, Coughlin, and lots of the visuals were great: the brothel, the fun house, and the gorgeous landscape shots from the helicopter of the desert. I felt like Kim Barker didn’t do a great job of describing the world she was in for readers to visualize. The writing was pretty dry. So, seeing the fun house hotel and the brothels come to life made me understand more the discrepancy between life as a foreign correspondent and the country they were really living in.
2. CONDENSING THE STORY/ CHARACTERS
REBECCA: The movie wisely skips Pakistan and focuses on Afghanistan. It also therefore skips a large subplot with Benazir Bhutto, which is a smart move because it simply would have been too much story to cover in a two-hour movie.
For a love interest, Robert Carlock (the screenwriter) creates an amalgam of several different men she dates throughout the book and morphs them together with Sean, a British friend of hers (not a lover) who gets kidnapped by the Taliban after going on a high-risk interview that everyone, including Kim, had told him to skip. In the book, he is later released, but his handler is killed. This is a moment of awakening for Miss Barker, who realizes that the risk he took was too great and they’re asking too much sacrifice of the people who work for them.
In the movie… well, it’s a movie. They give it a big Hollywood ending where Sean (now Iain) is her lover and she orchestrates this huge effort to save him, thus tying together all the characters she’s worked with throughout the story while simultaneously becoming the GREATEST LIVING REPORTER EVER and saving her job! (Oh, if only life were like the movies.)
Also, Iain is played by Martin Freeman (AKA our Brit boyfriend), inexplicably Scottish here, but neither Chris nor I were complaining. If you follow my Outlander articles, you know I don’t mind me some Scottish men. And I have to say, it was pretty damn nice to see a movie about a woman who works for a living where the love story was really a B story and not her reason for existing.
CHRIS: There’s a great exchange in the film where one female character lets Iain know not to mistake and accent for a personality. But let’s face it, who can resist a Scottish accent?
3. GIVING US (AND KIM) SOME INSIGHT INTO THE PEOPLE OF AFGHANISTAN
REBECCA: There’s this great scene in the movie that’s not in the books, where the wells that the Marines have been building for the local Afghan women keep getting blown up. They assume it’s the Taliban. But the women call Kim into a tent and lift their veils, telling her how they’re the ones destroying the wells.
CHRIS: The film wasn’t weighted down with the ins and outs of the tribes and the warring factions, etc. What it did do well was give viewers a taste of the culture clash in a humorous way. The well was a great example not in the book. Here Westerners think they are doing something wonderful for the village so the women didn’t have to walk miles for water. What they didn’t realize was that the women look forward to that time; it was how they socialized. Kinda like a quilting circle of the 1700s. Sure a sewing machine would’ve sped up the process, but part of the reason women then got together to quilt was for the social interaction. Something we’ve lost in our culture of machines and doing everything as fast as possible.
REBECCA: Agreed. And it’s a great learning moment for our protagonist; she’s a bit different when she gets back from that trip, and that’s a good thing.
AND SOME THINGS IN WTF THAT DON’T QUITE WORK:
1. CAT FIGHTING
REBECCA: So this movie does what all movies are apparently contractually obligated to do these days when they’re afraid their subject matter might not be interesting enough: they put Margot Robbie in it. Both Chris and I actually really like the addition of this character, who is not in the book. (Well, there’s some vague mention of a female friend in the book, but as with Iain, she is largely created from whole cloth.)
But damn it, Hollywood, why can’t you let women be friends? In the end, it turns out Margot backstabs Tina a bit in the work department.
CHRIS: I didn’t mind Margot Robbie’s character. But I really hated they made them rivals and enemies in the end. There was no need for it. Once again it is Hollywood’s weird perception that women can’t be friends. I don’t get that or understand where that thinking comes from. To make it worse, Iain betrayed her just as much as Tanya [Margot’s character]. He stole her story and went without her when he was supposed to be meeting her in Glasgow. Tanya gets labeled a horrible person and practically a murderer, but Iain just says to Kim, “You would’ve done the same. I’ve already forgiven myself.” And somehow this is ok???
REBECCA: Totally. PS, I’m glad we’re friends. Also I’ve stolen your job.
CHRIS: Totally fine. Can I take yours?
2. KIM’S CHARACTER REVELATIONS IN THE END
REBECCA: So here are some of the things that Kim realizes about herself at the end of Taliban Shuffle:
I knew how to do the Taliban shuffle between conflict zones. I knew how to be alone. I knew I did not need a man, unless that man was my fixer. But also, I knew I had turned into this almost drowning caricature of a war hack, working, swearing, and drinking my way through life and relationships… I could choose life, or I could choose to keep hopping from one tragedy to the next. Like any junkie, I needed to quit. -Kim Barker, The Taliban Shuffle
That’s some deep self-reflection right there. Most of us never really understand ourselves that well, and by the end Kim’s long tenure in Afghanistan and Pakistan, you get it. She’s seen so much war, so much death. Her affinity for Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated prime minister of Pakistan, combined with the kidnapping of Sean, whose selfish insistence on taking this high-risk interview had gotten his handler killed—all of her experiences had made her realize that she was becoming less-than-human somehow. That war wasn’t an entertainment, a place to hang out and get high, or a means to a career. To save the part of herself that was still worth saving, she had to graduate from “Kabul High.”
But most of that stuff doesn’t happen in the movie. There is no Pakistan, no Bhutto, no condemnation of Sean, who is now Martin Freeman. And you can’t stay mad at Martin Freeman. He’s the Hobbit, for God’s sake.
CHRIS: Her motivation for suddenly changing her view on her life was weak in the film. In the book it is PTSD basically and realizing she can’t continue. In the film it is her being replaced essentially by Tanya and thinking that maybe things aren’t going to be always and forever with Iain – but that makes you dump a guy, not change your life.
3. WHAT ABOUT THE DEATH OF THE NEWSPAPER?
CHRIS: The film drops her from being a newspaper reporter. I totally get why they chose to make her a TV reporter since film is a visual medium and watching her type stories on a computer for an hour and 50 minutes is not entertainment, but there was a great sub story there about the decay of the newspaper industry that was pivotal to the early 2000s that they completely missed.
REBECCA: Agreed. I missed that too.
Okay, so basically, I think this was a very successful adaptation. I mean, it’s a movie, right? If it were as meandering and inconclusive as life, we could have stayed home and saved 15 bucks. Chris?
CHRIS: Overall – I really enjoyed the film. Watch the film, skip the book – unless you want to learn more about what was happening in the region at the time. And in that case – just go find a better book to read.
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