16 March 2016

'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' Delivers Media Embed Insights

Tina Fey and Billy Bob Thornton star in "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot." PHOTO: Frank Masi/Paramount Pictures
Movie Review: "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," currently in theaters.

With good natured and insightful humor, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" shines a snarky light into some of the dark corners and cracks in U.S. military-media relations. The movie stars Tina Fey, a brilliant comedian who first came to national attention as a writer for "Saturday Night Live." She also does a mean Sarah Palin impression.

The R-rated movie, a "war-journalism-comedy-drama" as written by frequent Fey collaborator Robert Carlock, accurately points out some of the land mines and tripwires of covering war as an embedded reporter, while also reinforcing some recurring reporter-at-war tropes.

The script is based on the "Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan," a 2011 memoir written by former Chicago Tribune bureau chief Kim Barker. The book has recently been reissued under the movie's title. Leaving other contrasts aside, the movie makes Tina Fey's version of Kim Barker a cable TV news journalist. This is understandable, given the visual medium—TV makes for good pictures, while print is harder to capture. The overall tone is a happy blend of "M*A*S*H" (1972) and "Broadcast News" (1987). It's not parody, but it does have a comedic point.

Here are 5 (spoiler-free!) things about embeds that "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" gets right:

War is filled with color and language. When Barker shows up with a bright orange backpack, a Marine sergeant quickly and forcefully tells her where to put it, and what to do with it. It's an anecdote reminiscent of one Chris Ayres told in his 2005 fish-out-of-water Iraq War memoir "War Reporting for Cowards." Ayres showed up packing a bright yellow tent with a fluorescent red cross atop it. Also, during my own brief embed in Afghanistan in 2011, reporters were not allowed to wear camouflage, causing me concerns about how to color-coordinate my war as a civilian.

Embedded relationships are inherently imbalanced. In the movie, Barker politely declines a challenge coin offered by a Marine commander—"I can't accept gifts," she says, reciting the old J-school mantra of objectivity. The colonel responds by asking whether, since she can't accept gifts, she can still accept the food, transportation, and security his Marines will provide. The relationship isn't entirely lopsided, however, once Barker realizes that some missions won't happen unless there's someone there to report it. That, too, is a comment on the practice of embedding media.

Coverage can have consequences at the soldier-level. After an affable Marine is transferred to a more combat-intensive zone, Barker suspects that he was punished for appearing on camera. I encountered similar situations during my brief time in Afghanistan, when I was advised that photographs of U.S. personnel not wearing the proper uniform on camera—gloves, helmet, eye-protection—would result in delays and and even denials of favorable actions. "Favorable actions" means things like promotions and medals.

Social rules are different downrange. Soon after her arrival to Kabul, a female colleague introduces Barker to the "deployment queen" concept. That, given their relative scarcity, individual women downrange are said to be more sexually desirable than they would be in the United States. "In Afghanistan, you're a serious piece of a--," Margot Robbie's character Tanya Vanderpoel tells Barker in the movie trailer. "You're like a what, a '6' or '7' in New York? Over here, you're a borderline '9,' borderline '10.'" While played for laughs, the exchange illuminates the nearly constant male gaze that American women—civilian and military—encounter when deployed.

Of course, armed with Tina Fey's sarcasm, the movie is also able to squeeze off a few rounds at gender issues in Afghanistan, too. As she puts on the blue burqa familiar to Southern Afghanistan, for example, her character says sardonically: "I feel so pretty, I don't even feel like voting!" The movie is obviously not an exposé on how poorly women are treated in Afghanistan, but it does successfully engage its targets.

News gets old fast. One of the movie's touchstones involves the disposition of a village well, a new source of water installed by coalition forces. When the Taliban apparently return again and again to destroy the small piece of infrastructure, the Marines express frustration regarding the Groundhog Day nature of trying to help the Afghan people. "We are definitely losing this war, as far as this well is concerned," one observes.

The mystery is later resolved when Barker learns from an unexpected source why the well is so routinely targeted. More than that, however, the events surrounding the well foreshadow her own later frustrations with getting airtime for her Afghan reports. From the media perspective, a well getting blown up once is news. Getting blown up twice is nearly a trend. And getting blown up more than that is just old news.

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