Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)
From the headlines to the front lines
The year is 2002 and television journalist Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is called to a meeting — along with a handful of other employees (whom are not yet married or parenting children) — with management requesting that one of the said staff take on a short assignment in war-torn Afghanistan, working as a correspondent to cover the U.S. conflict during the OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom), a mission that began in October of 2001. As it turns out, this was a rather thankless role as the Iraq War was nabbing all the major headlines at the time. It was also a dangerous job to volunteer for, literally being plopped into the Middle East during the bloody conflict. But none of this stopped Kim Baker from accepting the gig, Baker dissatisfied with her routine existence, monotonous desk-job ‘career’ (mostly covering low-profile stories), and absent boyfriend Chris (Josh Charles), who spent a great deal of time away, traveling for work.
Literally dropping everything (or a whole lot of nothing), Baker heads over to Kabul, and upon touchdown she rendezvous with her fixer/translator Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott), a kind and gentle local, before heading over to her allocated ‘dingy dormitory’ living quarters. It’s there that Baker encounters other international journos, renowned Australian correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and randy Scottish freelance photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), with whom she immediately develops a friendship. Learning to adapt to the Middle-Eastern way of life, Baker soon accompanies the Marine Corps on various bullet-dodging assignments, where she conducts ‘honest’ interviews with military personal (questioning the value of the soldier’s mission and their purpose in Afghanistan) whilst throwing herself into harm’s way in order to capture alarming images of warfare on camera. And just like that, Baker’s three-month stint becomes a three-year long stay, which turns out to be precisely the right ingredient this ‘sheltered’ American yearned for, Baker finding purpose and zen in her own humdrum life through the experience.
Loosely based on Kim Baker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot functions best as a slapdash, fish-out-of water dramedy, documenting the personal journey of a privileged ‘white-lady’ trying to discover herself while working and taking up residency in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan during wartime. Sure, having the 46-year-old Fey throw on a burka (or cover up her head) may give the subtle impression of female oppression (as a sort of subtext), with women struggling to gain freedom and reform in the male dominant society; but honestly, this is not that kind of film. Unfortunately, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t make the most of its politically charged backdrop and (for the most part) simply stays neutral in its re-telling of Baker’s war-side exploits, avoiding any sort of feather ruffling as a result.
Treading the line between edgy, droll and earnest, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa — the duo who helmed the hit Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011) — station viewers smack-bang in the rubble-filled Afghan streets, giving us direct insight on the war-set hostility, complete with fleeting glimpses of those clichéd (partially impactful) graphic images of mutilated corpses, all of this perhaps commenting on the horrors of the U.S. crusade. On the flip side, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot renders these nuances too lightly with scenes of heavy partying and alcohol consumption undermining any of the imagery’s impact or gravitas — Baker’s budding romance with photo journalist Iain is seen to have a larger impact (and effect) on her self-discovery than any severed limb or stiff.
Look, perhaps there is something to be said here as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot makes some stern observations on a soldier’s headspace (and their way of life), while exploring the endorphin rush Baker often experiences when venturing out with the U.S. Armed Forces (this charge becoming a sort of narcotic for the news anchor); but ultimately, these sub-textual threads have been explored deeper (and better) in weightier films — think Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) for instance. With that said, the narrative is chaotic and (at times) difficult to follow as Robert Carlock’s screenplay — who’s best know for penning Fey’s 30 Rock (2006) — juggles the urgency of Baker’s ‘shake up’ with that of a schmaltzy rom-com, throwing in a handful of other surrounding subplots for good measure; there’s a hint of M*A*S*H (1972), some insolent humor and occasional (albeit narrow-minded) worldview insight — though a lot of this is predictable and formulaic.
Ultimately it’s comedian Tina Fey, This Is Where I Leave You (2014), who anchors the picture and gives it solid footing, her portrayal of Kim Baker perhaps proving that Fey’s charisma can rise above a screenplay’s shortcomings. Fey’s Baker is charming, warm and highly relatable, the seasoned actress making the most of her ‘radical’ outsider scenario. Despite Fey’s excellent exposé however, our protagonistic ‘city girl’ is largely underdeveloped; her platonic camaraderie with Fahim (who cautions Baker on her compulsive obsession with danger) is frustratingly undersized — a relationship that sees potential in providing audiences with a deeper insight into Kim’s psyche — while the flick’s finale sees a vulnerability in our leading lady that’s mostly absent from a majority of the film — it’s just a shame that this ‘humanitarian’ side of Baker wasn’t capitalized upon throughout.
Elsewhere, the support players are relatively decent all around. Margot Robbie — who’s got quite a hefty cinematic year ahead (in 2016), with The Legend of Tarzan and Suicide Squad both just around the corner — is alluring as Aussie Tanya Vanderpoel, though limited screen time doesn’t allow the 25-year-old bombshell to fully flesh out the rival reporter while Martin Freeman, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), finely walks a tightrope between dreamy boy-toy and rugged savior — though oddly winds up in need of rescuing himself. In smaller roles, Christoper Abbott, Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), brings an interesting ‘cultural divide’ as Fahim Ahmadzai, Baker’s friend and fixer, whilst Billy Bob Thornton, Our Brand Is Crisis (2015) — who plays General Hollander, the U.S. Commander taking charge of the region — implants a certain presence to proceedings, one that’s heads and shoulders above the rest of the cast. And lastly, Alfred Molina, The Da Vinci Code (2006), (complete with a tacky beard and spiffy suit) is welcomingly amusing as rising Afghan official Ali Massoud Sadiq — but, given his awkward (and spicy) sexual cravings and sheer wackiness, it feels as though this character were plucked out of an entirely different movie.
Catering for Fey’s 30 Rock fanbase — with unusual SNL-type comedy sandwiched throughout — while working as a showcase for Tina Fey, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a competently made entertainer that dares to make (one or two) intrepid statements on the art of war; but I can’t seem to shake off this impression that the film could’ve made a much more powerful statement. Politically impartial, methodical and inoffensive, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot — which takes its name from a military phrase — somehow interjects the WTF (What The F@$%) acronym (if abbreviating the title to the popularized online term) into Baker’s disorderly affairs, exploding with Fey’s quirky brand of humor — it’s an odd mishmash of ideas that doesn’t exactly come together quite as nattily as filmmakers may have hoped. Either way, if you tackle this semi-serious wartime romp with a hint of shrapnel, one may find that there’s something for everybody to enjoy — be it the powerhouse performances (Fey in particular) or simply being absorbed by the intriguing, yet dramatized account of journalist Kim Baker, the real-life woman whose story inspired the said picture.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by S-Littner
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is released through Paramount Pictures Australia