Why Didn't Liberals Embrace 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot'?
I don't know what made me decide to take a chance the other day on Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a movie released last year and now available on Netflix. I've had it up to here with anti-American, military-bashing movies about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I had no reason to believe that this one, about an American network news correspondent who spends a couple of years based in Kabul, would be any less PC or preachy than Redacted, Syriana, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, Grace Is Gone, Green Zone, or a dozen others. (I liked The Hurt Locker and American Sniper, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which flopped last year when it was released in cinemas, definitely didn't look like it was in the same class as those pictures.)
But I gave the movie a chance anyway, deciding to have it on while I was futzing around the apartment. I was pleasantly surprised almost immediately. Tina Fey, playing a longtime newsroom writer with zero on-camera, war-zone, or foreign-correspondent experience (the movie is based on a memoir by Kim Barker, then of the Chicago Tribune, now of the New York Times), arrives in Kabul only to be greeted at the airport by a hijab-clad local woman who barks at her: “Cover your hair, shameless whore!” That line was a good sign – this was one movie, apparently, that wasn't going to back off from gags at the expense of Islamic culture. After Fey is driven to the house where she'll live with a bunch of reporters for other Western media organizations, one of those reporters – a stunning Britain blonde – tells her that while she (Fey) is a “six or seven” in New York, she's almost a ten in Kabul. Another good sign – this movie's not too PC to make jokes based on the premise (offensive in some quarters nowadays) that some women are more attractive than others.
It got even better. Seeing a bunch of women in blue burkas, Fey calls them “IKEA bags.” She gives her translator a copy of Oprah's magazine, O, so he can get some idea of how women think. Visiting a village on a Marines embed, she's irked that the male interpreters aren't allowed to talk to the local, burka-wearing women. In the same village, where a well installed by the Marines has been repeatedly destroyed, presumably by the Taliban, she's taken aside by the village women, who, removing their burkas, explain to her that they're the ones who keep destroying the well, because walking down to the river to get water is the closest they ever get to being free.
I was stunned. Was this really a Hollywood movie?
There was more. Interviewing an Afghan official, Fey addresses the continuation under the Karzai government of Taliban-style “vice and virtue” policing and the retention of sharia law in Kandahar. Preparing to visit Kandahar, Fey quips about the burka she's obliged to wear there: “It's so pretty I don't even want to vote.” Her Afghan bodyguard tells her: “Now you are in the blue prison.” In Kandahar, she visits a girls' school firebombed by the Taliban. There's graffiti on the wall. “What does it say?” she asks. The answer: No education for women.
No, it's not All Quiet on the Western Front or Saving Private Ryan or The Deer Hunter. It's a nice, appealing little movie about real people – a fish-out-of-water story with likable characters and a colorful setting. The funny lines landed; the poignant moments came off; the obligatory kind-of-love story that developed in the film's second half was believable and interesting enough and neither took up too much screen time nor yanked the film off course.
And no, there was no out-and-out personal tragedy, no overt depiction of wartime horror (unless you count a brief, scary encounter with a ragtag group of Taliban types and a climactic kidnapping scene), but we already know that war is hell and there are plenty of war movies that give us two solid hours of hell. The idea here was plainly to look at the war in Afghanistan through a different window. And it worked. It felt fresh; I felt as if I was glimpsing a side of that country that I hadn't seen before.
One more thing. Without engaging in so much as a second of sententious moralizing, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot sent a powerful feminist message. Much of its humor was at the expense of Islamic patriarchy. For that reason, American feminists should've embraced this picture. Hell, American liberals generally should've embraced it for the humane picture it paints of friendly, respectful interaction between Westerners and ordinary Afghans, who are presented consistently without condescension.
And yet I hadn't even heard of this film before. Why was that? As soon as it was over, I looked up some reviews online – and I found out what sins writer Robert Carlock and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa had committed, in the view of the mainstream cultural commentariat. The Hollywood Reporter informed me that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot had done “nothing to illuminate the larger geopolitical picture.”
Other reviews leveled essentially the same charge. What nonsense. Did Ninotchka “illuminate the larger geopolitical picture”? Of course what really bugged most of these reviewers was that the movie didn't make villains out of the Americans and saints out of the Afghans. Also, they didn't like the fact that the two juiciest Afghan parts weren't played by real Afghans.
Then there was the whole verboten business of making fun of anything remotely connected to Islam. The Ayatollah Khomeini once said that there's no humor in Islam, and in America's left-wing cultural establishment there's certainly no humor allowed anywhere near that most sacred (and scary) of topics. Case in point: Melissa Anderson, whose review of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot appeared in the Village Voice and several other left-leaning metro weeklies. Actually accusing the film of “mild Islamophobia” and of “disregard for the battle-ravaged Asian nation” – sheer calumny! – Anderson was outraged that when Fey makes her “IKEA bags” remark, “we are meant not to be appalled by her bigotry but to chortle along with her forthrightness.”
Yes, that's the word Anderson used: “bigotry.” As far as she's concerned, a woman who openly and unapologetically disapproves of men forcing women into “blue prisons” is guilty of nothing less than bigotry. No surprise there: this kind of repellent cultural relativism, this refusal to stand in solidarity with the planet's most oppressed females, is what passes for American feminism nowadays. And it's why an effective, authentically feminist movie like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot gets trashed by the same types of moral and intellectual pygmies who think that Linda Sarsour is a women's rights heroine.