The biggest failing of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the fact that it never really seems to know what it wants to be. Is it comedy or is it drama? With Tina Fey on board in the lead role and as a producer, along with Saturday Night Live head honcho Lorne Michaels, it seems reasonable to expect a laugh-a-minute skewering of America’s efforts in Afghanistan in the first years of the new millennium. However, whilst there are a few moments of mirth, the humour takes a backseat for the most part in this story of journalist Kim Baker (Fey) who is thrust into a combat zone as the correspondent for a television news network. It is also hard to grasp exactly who co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are aiming the film at because the violence is relatively mild and there is no sex to speak of (well, actually they do speak about it and that’s it), which is fine if you are looking to lure a younger audience with the hope of raising their awareness about this particular period in history, but there is an abundance of swearing that, whilst no doubt representative of the way these characters might speak, only serves to push the movie into a higher classification than it otherwise might be and potentially out of reach for such an audience. There is nothing wrong with swearing at all in contexts such as this, the problem is that it seems out of step with the softly-softly approach the filmmakers have taken in those other areas, as if they can’t decide whether they want gritty and realistic or something altogether more palatable for the more sensitive cinemagoer.
That is not so say there are not some good moments to be had with Fey, who is a gifted comedy writer and performer, joining a growing list of comedians in making a move to more serious material. Based on real events and adapted from the memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot brings some insight into the plight of journalists on the front line of the so-called war on terror. Initially out of her depth, Kim soon becomes entrenched in this exciting new world, spending her days embedded with soldiers as they battle boredom and the indifference of those they are trying to help, while her nights are filled partying with fellow journalists at the secure accommodation compound they share. Kim’s forays into the field are punctuated by moments of action that emphasise just how quickly things can escalate and the inherent risks associated with their mission.
Fey is effective enough for most of the film, but there are a couple of bedroom interludes so awkward they are reminiscent of Fey’s neurotic sex-averse 30 Rock character Liz Lemon and render the whole romantic sub-plot as excruciating and unconvincing and perhaps better left on the cutting room floor. Martin Freeman plays Scottish photographer Iain MacKelpie, a hard drinking, womanising cliché, while Margot Robbie is good fun as Tanya Vanderpoel, the attractive, bullish British journalist who takes Kim under her wing. However, the less said about the performance of fellow Aussie Stephen Peacocke as Kim’s bodyguard the better. The film has attracted some criticism for its white-washing of two key Afghani characters and there is some merit in such protestations, although Christopher Abbott (Martha Marcy May Marlene) delivers an earnest, respectful and, dare I say, authentic portrayal as Kim’s translator/driver Fahim. In fact, Abbott and Fey share some of the best moments in the film. At the other end of the spectrum, Alfred Molina presents political figure Ali Massoud as a bumbling lecherous buffoon, resplendent with a dodgy beard and an equally dubious accent. Billy Bob Thornton rarely disappoints and he is fine as General Hollanek, with Evan Jonigkeit also shining as Coughlin, a young Marine who pays a high price for his service.
Whilst a long way from the quality of something such as M*A*S*H, like the Korean War-set comedy there is also potential for this story to be explored with greater depth and insight as a television series. The events of the film take place over several years and the necessarily limiting scope of a two-hour film does prove problematic in trying to give the various characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves the narrative heft they deserve. With a soft spot for Tina Fey, I am probably more partial to Whiskey Tango Foxtrot than I ought to be but it does boast numerous enjoyable sequences and explores a number of issues – such as the plight of a woman working within the male-dominated worlds of the media, the military and Islamic culture – but the various story arcs never come together to form a wholly satisfying whole.