Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) / Comedy-War
MPAA Rated: R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images
Running Time: 112 min.
Cast: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Stephen Peacocke, Josh Charles
Small role: Soledad O'Brien
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Screenplay: Robert Carlock (based on the book, "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan"., by Kim Barker)
Review published March 4, 2016
Tina Fey (Sisters, This is Where I Leave You) stars as Kim Baker, a journalist stuck in a life rut while working in television news as a copy-editor in New York. Unmarried and without children, Kim ends up taking on an assignment to cover the war in Afghanistan, beginning in 2003. What initially had been intended as a three-month gig end up being much longer (we immediately know she's still there in 2006, based on the film's prologue), much to the chagrin of her boyfriend back home (Charles, I Smile Back). In Kabul, the experience of which the visiting parties refer to as 'living in the Kabubble', she's immediately a fish out of water, dealing with the many macho men in the Marines, violence seemingly erupting without warning around her, and with none of the amenities back home. She's immediately taken in by the pool of fellow war correspondents and their entourage of photographers and bodyguards, who enjoy blowing off considerable steam in the evenings, while in the daytime, it's still as dog-eat-dog for news stories as it had been back home.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (that's "WTF" in the NATO phonetic alphabet used widely by the US military) is adapted by former "30 Rock" show runner Robert Carlock, from the 2011 non-fiction memoir, "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan", by former Chicago Tribune reporter Kim Barker (her name was slightly changed for the film that takes many fictional liberties with her story). Directed by the team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus, Crazy Stupid Love), WTF feels conflicted, stuck somewhere between a satire on the nature of war zone journalism and a mix of conventional formula antics found in mainstream workplace comedies and rom-coms. It often seems on the verge of having something profound to say, but it falls short of actually uttering them with resonance, too unsure to shed the shackles of Hollywood tried-and-true tropes and risk losing crowd-pleasing appeal. As it doesn't settle on a clear direction, frustration can set in for audiences, mainly because of its noncommittal nature. In trying to speak to all possible audiences, its approach is to not alienate any specific ones, lessening the impact of the more serious scenes that the filmmakers half-heartedly strive for.
Much of the loose-hanging film's run time deals with the off-screen life of civilian journalists who cope with the day-to-day living in such a crazy, often surreal, and somewhat lonely place. They come to rely on whatever happiness they can find in the comforts of each other, drinking excessively and carousing until the wee hours of the morning. In between some of the more obvious attempts to grab for laughs, which represent the film's worst indulgences, there are interesting observations that spring up from the 'Kabubble'. One involves the notion that people who find themselves in the theater of war develop an addiction to it, as the adrenalized high they feel while in danger is very akin to shooting heroin or some other narcotic substance directly into their veins daily. Another involves the use of subtitles that tell us what the Afghan people are saying that the English-speaking characters are clueless about, usually something to evoke laughs in us in the audience at the ignorance of our protagonists. There's also a lot of emphasis on dancing and partying, usually to hip-hop anthems like House of Pain's "Jump Around" and A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario", partially to show the need for steam-blowing among the living among the death that surrounds them daily, and partially to break the spell of the seriousness of the storytelling that occasionally creeps in.
Although it's shot mostly in deserts of New Mexico, the locale work seems real enough when it depicts the hustle and bustle of Kabul, or the scenes of battle in the more rural areas. Curious casting choices, unfortunately, do remind us we're watching a movie and break the illusion. Christopher Abbott (A Most Violent Year) as Baker's conscientious interpreter/driver/guide and Alfred Molina (Secret in Their Eyes) as a lusty local bureaucrat are fine actors, but as native Afghans, their labored accents and beards that look glued on persistently break the spell of the film's all-important authenticity. Margot Robbie (Z for Zachariah) as a frenemy journalist, Billy Bob Thornton (The Judge) as the hard-nosed general in command, and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies) as the Scottish jerk of a photojournalist who wishes to be a love interest manage to acquit themselves well in roles tailored to their respective strengths. The latter actor eventually becomes a reluctant component in the closest that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has to a conventional plot. It's a superfluous development, further complicating a film that finally had been seeming like it had finally found something akin to a groove of just being a kooky odyssey of the senseless nature of the experience.
While Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does occasionally stumble into moments of interest and introspection, enough to find it entertaining for most audiences interested in the topic, it's too scattershot in its approach and too mixed in its tone to earn an unqualified recommendation. Although it stars a popular comedic talent in Fey, the film mostly hits its stride when it isn't deliberately playing for laughs, primarily because those are the poignant moments that ring with the most truth. That, and the comedy, by and large, is a little too manufactured to jibe with the sober reality of the depressing nature of the world that surrounds Kim and the others. On a more positive note, Fey does show some good dramatic chops when the situation asks for it; it's not award worthy, but shows promising range.
It's not always an assured piece, but there are enough moments to be found within this somewhat unbalanced comedy to make it worthwhile for those interested in a peek behind the scenes of modern-day war correspondence. Despite the marketing behind it trying to sell you on a hilarious Tina Fey romp, the contrived moments of humor don't land. If you come in not expecting witty merriment on the level of "30 Rock", you could find that the scattershot movie yields some rewards when it dons its more fitting suit as a more reflective, cynical satire in the vein of Good Morning Vietnam.
©2016 Vince Leo