Whiskey Tango Foxtrot comes to us from writer Robert Carlock, here making his film debut after writing for “30 Rock”, “Saturday Night Live”, and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, among other TV projects. It was directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, previously responsible for such fizzling disappointments as Crazy, Stupid, Love and Focus. But of course the biggest name attached to this film is Tina Fey, the beloved multihyphenate who not only stars here, but also produces alongside Lorne Michaels (who hopefully needs no introduction).
This seems like a very unlikely collection of filmmakers to try and bring us a movie about the modern war in Afghanistan. But it strangely fits, because this isn’t exactly your typical war movie.
Our story is loosely based on the real-life memoirs of overseas war correspondent Kim Barker. I’d like to stress the word loosely, as Tina Fey plays a character named Kim Baker. Note the name change. Anyway, Kim is a copy writer for a TV news station that’s in dire need of a foreign correspondent in Kabul. Because Kim is unmarried (though she does have a boyfriend, played by Josh Charles) and she doesn’t have any kids, she’s a prime candidate to be sent over to Afghanistan. And almost on a lark, she agrees. What follows is a three-month assignment in Kabul that gradually stretches out into three years (2003-2006, roughly).
The film is notable in that it portrays all of Kabul — both inside and outside the American installations — with a kind of sardonic wit. Afghanistan is depicted as a place of anarchy, where nobody’s in charge and nobody seems to have any idea what’s going on, and yet everything is still held together in a fragile status quo somehow. What’s more, even if Afghanistan is an extremely dangerous place, that could be seen as just another way in which absolutely everything over there is ridiculously heightened.
As for the Americans — particularly the journalists — they seem to have taken a “live and let live” attitude toward the whole thing. All they have is each other, and any of them could die at any moment, so why not get drunk and have sex and party like nobody’s watching? Especially since nobody is watching — America is a world away, nobody wants to hear anything about the war in Afghanistan, and nobody seems to have any idea what we’re doing over there or why we invaded to begin with. As one character so astutely put it, our military involvement in Afghanistan is like fucking a gorilla: “You keep going until the gorilla’s decided it’s had enough.”
The film jokes about the ridiculous nature of life in a Middle Eastern war zone, but it does so in a way that maintains respect for the region and never loses sight of how fatally dangerous the place is. It may be exciting in the moment, and there are a lot of things over there that demand national attention no matter how ugly they may be, but it’s just not healthy on a personal level to be immersed in so much chaos for very long. Which is doubly true for a woman in such a notoriously misogynistic place, and of course the film addresses that at great length.
Needless to say, this movie depends pretty much entirely on Tina Fey. The movie’s sense of humor is such a huge part of the movie and it’s so far up her alley that it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing such a great job. Kudos are also due to Martin Freeman, who does a surprisingly good job of playing a likeable dickhead; Billy Bob Thornton, who gets a few laughs without losing any sense of authority as a Marine general; and Christopher Abbott, who brings a tremendous amount of heart to the film as Kim’s guide.
Alas, not everyone in the cast comes out all that great. Perhaps the most lamentable waste is Margot Robbie, who takes up quite a lot of screen time. The camera loves Robbie, she’s so effortlessly charming and funny, and she’s stuck playing this empty nothing of a character. Seriously, this “best friend” supporting character could have and should have been so much more, but she would’ve been nothing if Robbie hadn’t been cast.
There’s also the matter of Alfred Molina, here playing the corrupt sexist pig who serves as the local attorney general. I realize that the character is unlikeable by design, but that didn’t necessarily mean that he had to be so aggressively broad and pathetic past the point of humor. Molina’s a great actor and he deserves better than this. As for the talented Josh Charles, his character is such a non-entity that the part could’ve been played by anyone and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
But by far the biggest problem with this movie is in how fragmented it feels. I get that this is kind of inherent in the premise, but the whole movie feels like a disjointed sequence of events, in which Kim moves from one unconnected story to the next. Kim’s development is perhaps the most prominent through-line for us to follow, but even that’s undercut by the fact that not even Kim herself seems to have any idea of what she wants out of this or how she came out of Kabul as a more intelligent and/or enlightened person. Additionally, there’s the fact that the movie tries to compress three years into two hours, so of course we’re getting an arc with a ton of holes in it.
There was definitely room in here to make a solid statement about the war in Afghanistan, our troops and reporters over there in the field, about sexism and workplace discrimination, about cooperation with our fellow human beings across sociopolitical borders, and so on. And to be fair, a lot of those messages do come across in implicit ways. But nevertheless, there’s a strong sense that if the filmmakers had gone just a bit further, they might have delivered something more coherent for the audience to take with them out of the theater. Instead (much like the main character), I walked out of this movie grateful for the experience, but unable to articulate exactly what I got out of it.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is maddening in that it does a lot of things in a satisfactory way, but it never does any one thing exceptionally well. The humor is clever, but it’s never laugh-out-loud funny. The action is effective, but nothing to blow your hair back. The social commentary is smart, but it stops just short of focusing on a single coherent point.
Really, the only thing that this movie does unquestionably well is to serve as a showcase for Tina Fey. I know she has her fans (and rightly so), and they will definitely want to see this as quickly as possible. Anyone else won’t lose anything by waiting for a DVD rental or a second-run.