Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an uneven, but otherwise passable wartime comedy/drama anchored by Tina Fey’s performance.
Tina Fey stars in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot as Kim Baker, a New York-based cable reporter who – seeking an escape from her mundane existence – agrees to head over to Afghanistan to cover developments in the country, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Kim, with the assistance of her kindly translator/driver Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) and guidance from the more experienced British TV journalist/war correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), slowly but steadily finds her footing in her new wayward (and war-torn) workplace – where reporters often put themselves in the line of fire alongside members of the military by day (in order to secure footage and/or a scoop), before partying hard and drinking away their stress/anxieties with the locals by night.
Although Kim’s initial plan was to work in Afghanistan for three months before returning to her old life (complete with steadier hours and a part-time boyfriend), she ends up staying much longer in the country and forms close bonds with her eccentric coworkers – including an incorrigible Scottish journalist named Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) – while also finding useful sources of information like government official Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina), who not-so-subtly fancies her. However, the longer Kim stays in Afghanistan, the more she starts to grow “addicted” to living on the edge and seeking big thrills through her work – putting her at risk of being seriously injured on the job… or much worse.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on Kim Barker’s 2012 memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan”, as was adapted for the big screen by the screenwriter Robert Carlock: Fey’s longtime collaborator, who also served as a writer/producer on her comedy series 30 Rock and co-created Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with Fey too. It thus comes as no surprise that the movie (which was also backed by Fey’s Little Stranger banner) not only feels very much tailor-made for Fey’s comedic and dramatic sensibilities, but often plays out like the movie version of “30 Rock in the Middle-East” in the way that it combines workplace comedy with an ensemble of eccentric characters – as well as mostly apolitical satire, in this case. As a result, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot offers a collection of funny character-driven moments, witty social commentary, and sincere dramatic story beats, while at the same time by and large managing to transition from scene to scene and handle the shifts in tone without feeling too clunky.
While Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is entertaining moment by moment, it’s also noticeably episodic – as evidenced by how frequently the film jumps ahead significant amounts of time between major plot developments – and struggles to create cohesive themes or fully-explored ideas around the central story thread of the film, Kim’s journey of self-improvement – which, unfortunately, is very conventional on the whole. For that reason, the film falls short at crafting a satisfying three-act narrative out of Kim Barker’s actual experiences; nor does it offer fresh insight on the various institutions that it examines, compared to past movies both dramatic and comedic in nature. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t rely on lazy and/or outdated humor like the Bill Murray vehicle Rock the Kasbah or the now-canceled HBO TV show The Brink – both of which also try to mine comedy by placing American comedians in the Middle-East – but it doesn’t fully succeed at using its humor to tackle challenging subject matter either, even before things grow more serious in the film’s third act.
Directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love; Focus) manage to guide along the proceedings of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot along without upstaging the antics of their cast (or vice versa), while even incorporating a few recognizable stylistic flourishes of their own – see, for example, how they combine pop music with montages and/or to compliment certain sequences during the film. The directors and cinematographer Xavier Grobet (Ficarra and Requa’s frequent collaborator) take a journalistic visual approach to filming the action, relying upon hand-held camerawork and rough jump cuts throughout in a manner that serve the story’s purposes well enough – though, at this point in time, that filmmaking approach has become standard for docudrama fare (even semi-fictionalized ones), and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t have much that helps it stand out from the rest of the crowd, aesthetics-wise. Nevertheless, Ficarra and Requa’s directorial approach here stands apart from their previous work, showing their expanding range as storytellers.
Tina Fey as Kim Baker (whose last name was presumably tweaked to distinguish her from the real-life Kim Barker), by comparison, is solid as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot‘s relatable and often self-deprecatory protagonist, though the character is admittedly not a stretch for Fey – ultimately playing to her strengths as an actor without also pushing Fey to expand her horizons. Margot Robbie (who previously collaborated with Ficarra and Requa on Focus) as the TV reporter Tanya Vanderpoel comes off better by comparison, further establishing herself as a talented character actor with her turn as a journalist whose hectic lifestyle and wild-child attitude is matched by her intelligence and ambition. Sherlock‘s Martin Freeman is likewise enjoyable as the scoundrel Scottish journalist Ian MacKelpie, whose relationship with Kim follows a predicable trajectory but is elevated through Fey and Freeman’s combined efforts.
The decision to cast celebrated character actor Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott (formerly known as Charlie on Girls) as the two main Afghan characters featured in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is certainly questionable, but for their part both actors play their roles well – with Abbott delivering a sensitive and humane performance as Kim’s assistant Fahim Ahmadzai, while Molina is appropriately outlandish as the unapologetically corruptible, yet shrewd, government official Ali Massoud Sadiq. As for the film’s supporting cast: capable characters actors such as Billy Bob Thornton (Fargo) and Nicholas Braun (Poltergeist) bring the eccentric people whom Kim encounters during her time in Afghanistan, providing a handful of additional laughs during their few scenes – even the ones that don’t really go anywhere, story-wise.
In short? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an uneven, but otherwise passable wartime comedy/drama anchored by Tina Fey’s performance. The film boasts its fair share of entertaining moments and enjoyable sequences (both comedic and dramatic alike), but at the end of the day they just don’t add up to a satisfying movie narrative – rather, one that tackles a number of ideas without ever forming a clear vision of what it’s about. Fans of Fey should get additional mileage out of the movie, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot just doesn’t succeed at expanding Fey’s brand of insightful comedy the way that it aspires to. Thankfully, the final result is a far cry from “Tina Fey’s Rock the Kasbah“… but it’s definitely not “Tina Fey’s MASH“, either.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 112 minutes long and is Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images.
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