I wasn’t expecting to get as much out of WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT as I did. I do like most of Tina Fey’s work, but war comedies can be a difficult balancing act, especially when handling such recent, raw events. Thankfully, the film is smart, mostly sensitively handled take on the war in Afghanistan held together by a very strong lead performance from Fey.
Journalist Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is sent to Afghanistan at the height of US military involvement to bring coverage of the war back Stateside. She begins as a dangerous liability to the unit she is attached to but finds her confidence enough to do important work on the ground and keep the American public informed. But on the ground and in the middle of a war zone the situation changes quickly and Kim’s home life begins to interfere with her vital role as a war correspondent.
Robert Carlock’s dialogue is witty but not overly polished, the gags rarely run exactly as you expect them to. It’s a cruel but amusing setup for why certain journalists were sent to Afghanistan: “You are all the unmarried, childless personnel”. Basically, who can we afford to lose if things go wrong? There’s probably a certain amount of truth in that. American Soldiers aren’t presented as the invaders here, but their reason for being there is constantly called into question, like when Kim, in interview mode, asks a marine why he enlisted, he replies “I’m a big fan of the movie PREDATOR and I’m the same height as Arnold Schwarzenegger”. There are some nice one-liners too, when Kim produces an orange rucksack that she plans to bring on patrol, a sergeant screams, “Where you gonna hide this, inside a sunset?”
Tina Fey is recognised as a brilliant writer and talented comic performer, but I think she is underappreciated as a “serious actor”. Here, despite the film’s marketing as the usual raucous comedy, like PINEAPPLE EXPRESS with a location change (this isn’t) Fey is able to show her considerable range. The subject matter is challenging, the debate is intense, some of the imagery pretty horrific. There are moments of intense contemplation, the real cost of the war is never in doubt, and Fey completely sells that drive every good journalist has to tell the right story at all costs. Christopher Abbott as Kim’s guide Fahim brings a lot of heart and another perspective to the film and Martin Freeman has fun playing a jerky photojournalist even if his role becomes ever less necessary as the plot moves on.
Now what on Earth is Alfred Molina doing in this film playing a Muslim community leader? He’s dropped out of somewhere else, a far more unpleasant place of lazy parody and stereotypical shortcuts. It’s like a character from a 70s sitcom decided to try his hand in something more serious, and it’s completely innocuous. Margot Robbie is ridiculous as well, so ridiculous and unpleasant in fact that her vacuous character is probably a close approximation of somebody real. Her presence seems solely to justify a scene describing just what a girls’ night out in Kabul entails (a sequence which mostly manages to waste the skills of A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT’s Sheila Vand).
There have been funnier war comedies and more biting satires, but it’s the earnesty that comes through strongest in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; real people in difficult situations trying to do what they think is the right thing. When it’s really pushing for a gag (the disastrous televised first woman in Afghanistan driving) it doesn’t work as well, but when it’s letting Fey do what she does best or questioning the point to the war without diminishing the sacrifices of real people, it comes close to shining. SSP