In a 2011 review of Kim Barker’s book The Taliban Shuffle, the account of Barker’s time in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a reporter at ProPublica and as South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009 New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that the book, in its absurdist, dark-humor depiction of the war zone, was reminiscent of Robert Altman’s classic film version of M*A*S*H*, and that Barker “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war.” Thus, from the time of its publication, it was apparently inevitable that Barker’s book would become the basis of a big-budget Hollywood movie, and that Tina Fey would play the lead.
Which she does with aplomb, even if the movie doesn’t quite reach the heights of satire or of political commentary that Altman’s film did. If you have seen the trailer for this film, then you know that it depicts the movie as, basically, “Liz Lemon goes to war.” Fey plays a character named “Kim Baker,” with a nod to the fact that this is a film “based on” Barker’s book, not an actual faithful representation of the real-life events in that text. The trailer shows her arriving in Kabul and being told in Afghan to “cover your head, you shameless whore” (a comment that her escort tells her means “welcome to Afghanistan”); it shows a scene in which Baker relieves herself behind a bush while an whole unit of marines waits for her and throws in some bathroom humor; and it depicts a scene of Baker reporting on the first woman driver in Afghanistan, who subsequently backs into something. In other words, the preview makes it clear that this is another light Tina Fey comedy, apparently structured around a few Saturday Night Live-type skits—a feeling underscored when we notice that the writer of the screenplay for the film is Robert Carlock, veteran writer of TV comedies including—prepare to be shocked—“30 Rock” and “Saturday Night Live.” When audiences arrive at the film expecting to be “entertained” by an extra-long TV sitcom, boy are they going to be surprised.
Because this is a comedy only in the sense that, say, Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five or, yes, M*A*S*H* are comedies. Part of the humor comes from the absurdity of some of the situations in the film: an American Marine general chastises a marine for using an expensive rocket to blow up an enemy vehicle that was probably worth no more than a couple of hundred dollars. American troops are put in danger in order to protect Chinese gold miners mining Afghan gold to bring to China. Km disguises herself in a Burka to video Afghan extremists shooting TV sets. But these things are more ironic than funny. Worse things happen: Scottish journalist Iain (played sympathetically by Martin “The Hobbit” Freeman) is kidnapped by the Taliban. Another crack reporter, Tanya Vanderpoel (played by Margot Robbie of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short), is stopped by a deadly explosion as she travels to interview a war lord; a young soldier Baker interviews early on is put into a life-threatening assignment as a result of that interview. So no, this is not a light, uproarious comedy.
Which is why some of the comic bits, especially some shown in the preview, seem somewhat out of place. If comedy lampoons knaves and fools, this is a film that is most successful when it focusses on the knaves, less so when it centers on the fools. Alfred Molina, terribly miscast (in part because he is a white American playing an Afghan politician) as high-ranking Afghan official Ali Massoud Sadiq, is simply not believable as the leering minister eager to be “better friends” with Baker (who, Vanderpoel tells her, may be a “6 or 7” in New York, but is at least a “9” in Kabul)—perhaps because the whole bit seems to be in the wrong movie.
But that’s just a symptom of a larger problem with the film. This is one of those movies that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. At the center of the narrative is Kim’s personal story: She is a bored newswoman who writes copy for the pretty on-air “personalities” to say, who suddenly gets the chance to go off to Afghanistan as an on-camera war correspondent. Feeling unfulfilled, she leaves her mundane life and relationship in New York for the chance of a new beginning as a reporter at the front. At one point in the film, she tells two women that she decided to take the job in Afghanistan while riding a stationary bike in Manhattan and noticing the indentation in the rug where she had been pedaling for years. “I was tired of pedaling and going nowhere,” she says in a line that maybe should never have been written. Fortunately one of the other women quickly shoots this down, saying “That is the most American white-woman thing I’ve ever heard.” Ultimately, after initial culture shock, Kim learns to handle herself in a war zone, to interview officials as well as soldiers and Afghan civilians, and—though this takes her a long time—to understand something of the plight of the Afghan people after 30 years of war and poverty. She also learns, mainly through the efforts of her interpreter Fahim (Christopher Abbott) that she has become addicted to the adrenaline rush of being in the war zone, a condition that leads her into bad decisions and cannot end well for her.
Swirling around this personal story are the war itself and all of the questions that surround it, including the reasons behind it and the continued purposes for it; the indifference of the American public that keeps Kim’s network from airing her stories because their viewers just aren’t interested anymore (what happens when actual news becomes entertainment); and the poverty, lack of education, lack of modern conveniences and perspectives of the Afghan people. But the film doesn’t really dwell on any of these things enough to make any real kind of statement about them.
Part of this lack of a central theme could come from the fact that the film has two directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and it is difficult to get a truly unified vision in such a case, though the two of them teamed up more or less successfully on the award-winning I Love You Philip Morris and later on Crazy Stupid Love and last year’s Focus (there’s a pun there somewhere), and co-wrote the screenplay for Bad Santa (which might explain Billy Bob Thornton’s low-key presence in the film). But it is also true that Barker’s book was about a number of things as well. Yes, it was about her own journey of self-discovery and relationships (in her book it was a former Pakistani head of state who came on to her), and yes, her addiction to the war. But it was also about the difficulty of a woman’s trying to break into the virtually exclusive male club of war journalists, the absurdity of the war and the incompetence of the Taliban, her opinions about the impossibility of the U.S. mission to ever achieve its proposed goals, the reasons (including the bad behavior of Americans and other westerners) for Afghan animosity toward the American troops, the indifference of the American people and media to the conflict, and the plight of the poor people living in the chaos. But a book can do all of those things, since it can explore them in depth at a leisurely pace. The film tries to do some of these things, but without any depth, and it also tries to be inoffensive—the directors and producers seem to want everybody to like the film and its eminently likable star, so they take only some very general swipes at some of these issues, and skip the real political commentary (the stuff about the futility of American involvement as pursued) which might involve them in controversy.
So in some ways the film is a lost opportunity. Still, it has a number of worthwhile aspects. Tina Fey, playing a serious and well-rounded character for the first time, shines from beginning to end in a movie that she really must carry, appearing as she does in virtually every scene and convincing us she is a real person. Robbie, and Billy Bob Thornton as General Hollanek, are spot-on in their performances, but they aren’t really given very much to do, and Thornton’s role is not much more than a cameo. Freeman has a little more to do and does more with it, playing ably against type as a flirtatious, boozing reporter with a thing for Kim. But Christopher Abbott (A Most Violent Year, TVs Girls)—another white American playing an Afghan—turns in the most impressive supporting performance in his understated and subtle depiction of Kim’s Afghan driver and interpreter Fahim Ahmadzal. If Abbott can bring that kind of commitment to his roles generally, he has a brilliant future in the movies!
Overall, I’m going to give this one two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson. It’s worth seeing, but don’t expect 30 Rock, and don’t expect M*A*S*H*.