Editor’s Note: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot opens in wide theatrical release today, March 4, 2016.
“War, what is it good for?” asked the protest song first performed by the Temptations (later definitely re-recorded by Edwin Starr in 1969). That song answered the question with an unqualified, resounding, “Absolutely nothing!”, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (WTF), the second Tina Fey vehicle in just three months (Sisters slipped into a memory hole some time after the new year), answers the question differently: To self-actualize its heroine, a pushing-past-40 TV news writer/copy writer, Kim Baker, who gets the opportunity of her journalistic lifetime when she’s asked to cover the Afghanistan war in 2003 by her network superiors. With little except some houseplants and “a mildly depressive,” constantly traveling boyfriend (Josh Charles) anchoring her stateside, the decision isn’t difficult to make. To a war in Central Asia and war reporting she goes, learning multiple Oprah-lite life lessons along the way with a colorful war as a backdrop for self-discovery and self-actualization.
Based on (or rather “inspired by”) Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Whiskey Foxtrot Tango takes more than a few liberties with the source material.
When she gets to Afghanistan, Kim, as inexperienced traveling abroad as she is with war reporting, naturally stumbles, but luckily an Australian reporter, Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), is there to give her a guided tour. Tanya encourages Kim to take advantage of being one of the few Western women in Kabul. In Afghanistan, Kim isn’t a 6 or 7, but a 9 or even 10. As the epitome of Western beauty, Tanya can’t be contained by any 10-point scale (she’s a 15 by her own estimation), and responds appropriately: bedding whomever she wants on a regular basis. Kim’s old-school ideas about fidelity and monogamy eventually give way, however, when her initial three-month stay in Afghanistan turns into months, then years. Out goes her old, stateside boyfriend, but the potential replacements, Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), a sexist, Scottish photo-journalist, Nic (Steve Peacocke), a member of her security detail, and Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina), a high-ranking official in the Afghan government, don’t exactly offer long-term viability relationship wise. Sadiq wants Kim as his “special friend” (mistress), while MacKelpie’s incessantly obnoxious behavior raises more than one warning flag.
Kim also gets to learn the ins-and-outs of Afghan culture from her interpreter, Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott), a devout, if forward-looking Muslim. On more than one occasion, Fahim saves Kim from physical danger or worse, but she’s too caught up in the thrill and excitement of her position as a war reporter, to remember the socio-cultural limitations and restrictions placed on women in Afghan society. Even wearing a burka isn’t enough to save Kim from an angry mob when she ventures into a men-only public park. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus, Crazy, Stupid, Love, I Love You Phillip Morris) to make a larger, if not necessarily deeper or profound, point about Western women and the sexism/misogyny they face in a male-dominated profession while also contrasting/comparing Western women to their Afghan counterparts (hint: Western women have it better/easier). And given Kim’s privileged position as a war reporter for a major cable news network, the difficulties, real as they might be, are far from insurmountable.
Though she deserves an A for effort, Fey doesn’t quite break free of her TV persona either, repeatedly slipping back into the quirks and ticks of her 30 Rock character, Liz Lemon.
Based on (or rather “inspired by”) Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Whiskey Foxtrot Tango takes more than a few liberties with the source material, starting with the seemingly innocuous spelling of Fey’s character, Kim Baker, not Barker, and continuing on through episodic, loosely connected vignettes clearly rewritten to Fey’s strengths as a comedic performer rather her relatively untested dramatic talent or skills. She gets to quip and mug her way to a better soul and maybe even a better, higher status position, engage in some romance – albeit thanks to a well-time retrograde sucker punch – and even saves the day or rather a fellow journalist from kidnapping with the aid of an easily convinced, glory-seeking Marine colonel, Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton). Most of Kim’s lessons, however, come by way of her association with Tanya. Initially following Tanya’s lead, she also learned an invaluable life lesson in professional ambition and its ethical, moral limits. Tanya becomes exactly who Kim doesn’t want to be (or no longer wants to be).
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has other problems too, of course. Working from Robert Carlock’s screenplay adaptation, Ficarra and Requa can never settle for a definite tone, rapidly shifting from comedy to drama and back again, often within the same scene. Though she deserves an A for effort, Fey doesn’t quite break free of her TV persona either, repeatedly slipping back into the quirks and ticks of her 30 Rock character, Liz Lemon. Add to that – or rather subtract from that – one or two over-the-top, scenery chewing performances (especially an egregious turn from Alfred Molina), rampant cultural insensitivity, and a problematic central premise (i.e., self-actualization through war in a foreign country), and the underwhelming result shouldn’t be a surprise. It should have been foreseeable well before they turned on the cameras on the first day of shooting Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
With some poor performances and a problematic central premise, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot's underwhelming result shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.