Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, 2016.
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
Starring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott and Josh Charles.
Bored, desk-bound TV journalist Kim Baker (Tina Fey) throws caution to the wind and takes up a three month assignment to cover the war in Afghanistan. Three months turn into two years, during which she learns to cope with an alien culture, unforgiving weather and the possibility of danger around every corner.
The phonetic alphabet title needs no explanation. And this is a Tina Fey film, so put the two together and this has to be a military comedy, doesn’t it? Surprisingly, no. It’s a film with some humour, true, but it doesn’t set out primarily to make you laugh. The journalist’s-eye-view of Catch-22 or M*A*S*H it isn’t.
Based on The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by journalist Kim Barker, this is something of a personal project for Fey, whose interest was piqued when a review of the book said the author had depicted herself as “a sort of Tina Fey character.” She’s also one of the film’s producers and has since set up a scholarship for veterans who want to study journalism. Which makes it sound like a vehicle for her and that’s exactly what it is. One that gives her an opportunity to move away from her usual comedy stomping ground and try something different. Not that the twinkle in her eye totally disappears, as she infuses Kim with an intelligent cheekiness, coupled with the kind of recklessness that goes with a journalist’s hunger for the big story. She’s likeable, human and happily carries the film on her shoulders. If only some of the other names in the cast, like Billy Bob Thornton and Alfred Molina, had been given as much to work with.
Despite the title, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t go to extremes in any direction, including the humour. What intentional laughs there are focus mainly on sex: she’s a 4 in New York but a 10 in Kabul, there’s a pair of dogs repeatedly and noisily getting it on outside her bedroom window, that sort of thing. Plus there’s the occasional touch of irony, such as her story about the first woman in Kabul to pass her driving test. As Kim talks to the camera, the woman in the car promptly crashes it by going into reverse. “Not good for women,” grimaces our reporter through clenched teeth.
As a film it falls somewhere between being a latter day M*A*S*H and the weightier films on the same subject, such as Zero Dark Thirty or the Danish offering, A War, coincidentally released on DVD this week. Yet it’s not in the same league as either of them, leaving it stranded in no-man’s land. It’s a comparatively sanitised look at the war with only a few glimpses of what the soldiers have to go through, although there is one scene in particular that leaves us in no doubt as to the results of an attack. It jars with the overall tone of the film, but it’s meant to. Apart from that, there’s more emphasis on the physical discomforts Kim has to put up with: the wind makes her hair blow all over the place (tie it back or get it cut?) and the lack of ladies’ loos.
Neither does it dip its toe especially deep into the murky water of politics. A few references to corruption here, some women’s rights issues there, it’s only when Kim conducts a series of vox pops with some soldiers that any serious political comment emerges. It certainly doesn’t want to rock the boat, although it does love to remind the audience that the Russians were in Afghanistan first and that this war is the result.
Yet, despite being a literally middle-of-the-road movie, it’s eminently enjoyable watch. There’s nothing especially new about it – we expect Kim to rise to the occasion every time and that’s exactly what she does – but it tells its story with energy and the occasional touch of pathos. The surprise is that it’s not the film that you expect. Perhaps a new title would help.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper – Follow me on Twitter, check out my movie blog and listen to my podcast, Talking Pictures.