Watching Tina Fey's correspondent work with her Afghan fixer in the new film "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" reminded me of the inventive, diligent, comical and strange characters who accompanied me over the years through war zones, across deserts, into revolutions and up the moonlit Himalayas.
Translators and fixers are confidants and finaglers, men and women who navigate the rage, despair and corruption of broken lands. The best of them are swift thinkers and smooth talkers. They can find a guerrilla camp, whisper in your ear if a road has been mined and guide you to the ragged grass of a mass grave. They know the black market, how to finesse an Internet connection and where to find booze in unlikely places.
Based on the memoir by Kim Barker, who covered the Afghan war for the Chicago Tribune, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" is a riff on the tension, trysts and neurosis faced by journalists weighed down by body armor and wads of cash. They veer from Taliban fighters to American troops to all the damaged lives between. Fey's character is led through the mayhem by Fahim (Christopher Abbott), a doctor who can earn more in one day as a fixer for a TV network than he can working a month in an Afghan hospital.
The two traverse battles, angry mobs, blown-up buildings and Muslim customs that keep Fahim diffident and reserved against the Fey character's free-wheeling Western ways. She pushes him toward dangerous places. He cautions against her brashness. Despite the unevenness of the film, Fey and Abbott, an American actor trying hard to pass as an Afghan, embody the tug-and-pull between correspondent and fixer; one will leave the country when the story goes cold while the other will stay behind to make a life amid the ruins.
It is hard for the ones who have no freedom to go.
"Let me see your passport," my fixer said to me one night during the Kosovo war. "I want to see what escape looks like."
A war correspondent is only as good as his fixer. But the creeping prospect of death can be too much for some. During the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, I was traveling with my fixer on territory held by Al Qaeda-linked militants. American bombs rumbled down from the sky as hundreds of villagers fled their homes in a caravan of cars, trucks and tractors. Moments after we interviewed a few of them, a suicide bomber exploded and bodies were scattered amid flame and smoke.
We hurried toward a small clinic. An overburdened doctor could do little as blood pooled the floor and the wounded died. Later that day, my fixer, a meticulous man who wore cardigan sweaters and shined shoes, told me he could not work for me anymore. He had a wife and a mother to support. "I cannot be killed," he said. "They depend on me." We sat in silence for a while and I thought how my need to tell the story was forcing him into choices he didn't want to make.
We parted as friends.
They come to you as strangers, but fixers often share the most intense and intimate experiences of your life. In northern Iraq, I sat with a fixer as we practiced tightening each other's gas mask; looking like insects and laughing. In Kosovo, my fixer wept for her countrymen as we entered a mosque where bodies from a fresh massacre lay in amber light. In Tibet, we trekked high in the Himalayas with Buddhist monks and a dying nun who were escaping Chinese soldiers. In Baghdad, my fixer, whose son was killed in the war, hurried me from a street as angry men circled us.
"We must go," he said. "It is not safe."
I keep in touch with some of my old fixers and wonder what happened to the others, including a Croatian woman with aristocratic flair who ordered wine and fish and adored expense accounts. They were actors, doctors, teachers and students before war descended upon them. Their lives put on hold, they used their ingenuity and English (one spoke in the cadence of a Scorsese movie) to make money. A few became as adrenaline driven as the correspondents they traveled with; others saw the desecration of their countries and realized that dreams go sideways and all you can do is endure.
"Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" captures the moment when Fey's character and Fahim look at each other as she is about to depart for America. She wants to embrace him, but Islamic law forbids it. They stand, staring. They have been through much together. He saved her life, watched over her. There is a bond but also a barrier, a border of culture and values that cannot be breached. He disappears into the seething streets. I know his kind well.
"Mr. Jeffrey," said my fixer in Beirut, "I am here for you."
He was a young man with a ponytail, a satchel and wire-rimmed glasses. He spoke with the speed of an auctioneer and offered that he was a socialist. We got into a car headed toward the mountains to interview Hezbollah militants. We came to a village and spotted bearded men sitting at a café with guns and bandoleers. We introduced ourselves to suspicious looks and gruff asides. My fixer began talking. He kept talking. The men with guns grew agitated. One of them shouted at him. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but it didn't feel right. I pulled my fixer aside.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"I'm just explaining to them the wrong ways of their politics."
"Yes, but it's good to interview them when they're mad. Do you have a question?"
A few days later, Pope John Paul II was holding a seaside Mass in Beirut. My fixer arrived early. We stood among the throngs as the pontiff's signature white car approached. "A lot of chaos," said my fixer. "It's different in the West, isn't it? You like lines and order. That's why the West likes chess. But here we like backgammon."
He pushed ahead of me through the crowd toward the car. John Paul waved; yellow and white flags flew. My fixer pressed closer and, as often happens in a foreign land, the world revealed itself in a new and splendid way. My fixer turned. He smiled and yelled.
"The pope has run over my foot."
Fleishman covered wars in Iraq, Kosovo, Libya and other conflict zones for the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.