Film Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Tina Fey does a lot to carry this Afghanistan-set war comedy through some rough patches.
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The pun-lover in me wanted Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to be bad I would have the opportunity to work some sort of god-awful “WTF” pun into this review. Alas for lame-humor enthusiasts—but good for movie fans—the directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love.Focus) has crafted a quite solid war comedy about a deskbound journalist (Tina Fey) who attempts to get out of her personal and professional rut by traveling to Afghanistan as a war correspondent.

Fey plays Kim Baker, whose real-life inspiration, Kim Barker, wrote the book on which Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based. Once she sets down in Afghanistan, Kim meets fellow journo Tanya (Margot Robbie), a glamazon and Kim’s guide to Kabul’s extracurricular activities; General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), a no-nonsense Marine who introduces Kim to the military side of things; Fahim (Christopher Abbott), her handler and expert on all things local; and brash Scottish photographer Iain, played by a charming Martin Freeman.

At first way out of her depth—her first night sees her tearfully confessing to her long-distance boyfriend (Josh Charles) via Skype that “I don’t think I can do this”—Kim eventually becomes accustomed to living in the “Kabubble,” a lifestyle characterized by drinking, drugs, casual sex and long stretches of tedium interrupted by the occasional burst of adrenaline whenever violence erupts or a particularly dangerous assignment comes up. Fey gets to stretch her comedic and dramatic chops, and she does so ably, balancing witty banter with doubts about whether she’s gotten too good at adjusting to a way of life that, she tells Iain late in the film, isn’t “normal.”

Screenwriter Robert Carlock made the very smart decision of highlighting the fact that Kim’s crisis, though important to her, is less than nothing when you compare it to the suffering of Afghanistan’s non-middle-class American contingent—i.e., everyone. When Kim relates how her decision to go to Afghanistan was motivated by a feeling that everything she’d done in her life up to that point had amounted to exactly zip, her friend Shakira (Iranian-American actress Sheila Vand, so brilliant in 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) breaks the heavy mood by dismissing Kim’s ennui as “the most American white lady story I’ve ever heard.”

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has its issues. It’s good-with-an-asterisk, that asterisk leading to a footnote that reads, “Well, it’s pretty good for a movie coming out between January and early March.” Indeed, Paramount made a very smart decision in scheduling Whiskey Tango Foxtrot right after the January-February doldrums, at a time when moviegoers desirous of more adult entertainment (sorry, Deadpool) have for the most part had to content themselves with mediocre offerings like Race, The Finest Hours and Jane Got a Gun.

Tonally, the film is inconsistent, bouncing back and forth between frat-house-style party scenes, war drama, mid-life crisis material and the burgeoning romance between Kim and Iain. While all those elements work individually, they never come together all that well. It’s hard to get invested in the terror of war when your very next scene is Kim sipping a cold one and playing squash. For all of Fey’s innate charisma, there’s only so much she can do to keep the momentum going.

And unignorable, especially given all the discussion about diversity at this year’s Oscars, is Ficarra and Requa’s decision to cast Alfred Molina and James White’s Christopher Abbot as the movie’s two main Afghan characters. Both fine actors, sure, but having your movie’s main representations of Afghanistan actually be played by actors of Middle Eastern descent would have been preferable.

For all these issues, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is Citizen Kane meets Raging Bull wrapped in The Godfather compared to Rock the Kasbah, which four months ago hit theatres with a different tale of a fish-out-of-water American (Bill Murray) engaging in shenanigans and learning life lessons after their job takes them to Afghanistan. If Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t perfect, at least its shortcomings can’t be summed up as “catastrophically awful on every level.” Everyone lured to Rock the Kasbah by the pedigree of Murray and director Barry Sonnenfeld owes it to themselves to see Whiskey Tango Foxtrot if for no other reason than it serves as an effective palate cleanser.

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