Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Producer: Ian Bryce, Tina Fey, Lorne Michaels
Starring: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thorton, Christopher Abbot
Cinematography: Xavier Grobet
Country: United States
Based on the book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (the phonetic spelling for the acronym WTF, which, in this case could have one of two meanings — “White Trash Female” or, perhaps more tellingly, “What The F_ck”), is the story of 40-something Kim Baker, an American TV journalist who, suffering a form of mid life crisis as she despondently pedals her way to nowhere on her local gym’s exercise bike, decides to take on a temporary, three-month assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan, to cover the ongoing conflict there.
Unfortunately, whilst the book itself may have had many poignant and life changing moments and lessons to tell, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot seems to attempt to say a lot but, ultimately, says very little.
During its run time of 112 minutes, I found it hard to work out exactly what the movie was about — was it a mid-life crisis turned true purpose story? A comment on Afghanistan life and the ultimate futility of the conflict itself? Was the movie supposed to be about women and their place in a land that traditionally shuns women from general public life? Unfortunately, in between frenzied parties held behind closed doors at the journalist compounds, the occasional fire fight out in the combat zone where soldiers whooped and hollered at each other, never once showing the true cost of war, drunken love making sessions between journalists that seemed to always end in tooth brushing (I’m sorry, but I’ve never seen anyone start brushing their teeth immediately after waking up with a hangover and a stranger in their bed, although perhaps that’s more a comment on my personal hygiene than the movie as a whole) and the search for the perfect story that would propel an aging journalist back into the spotlight, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot feels rushed and out of breath, searching for a deeper meaning that never comes.
There’s no doubt that Tina Fey, playing the fish-out-water journalist turned seasoned foreign correspondent Kim Baker, excels in her part, although to be fair, it’s not exactly a particularly challenging role for the actress, better known for her Saturday Night Live sketch work. Baker is simple enough for the audience to relate to but that’s about it. We know everything about her that we need to in the first few scenes and, clearly, Director Glenn Ficarra and John Requa decide that’s enough because her character never particularly develops during the course of the movie. Sure, she becomes more confident wearing burqas and blackmailing foreign ministers but that’s about as complex as she gets.
Martin Freeman, who I’m more familiar with for his light hearted work in The Hobbit and Love, Actually, plays Kim’s obligatory love interest, freelance photojournalist Iain MacKelpie. Aside from a very awkward Scottish accent that feels like he picked it up by watching YouTube videos (don’t lie — we’ve all done it), Freeman manages to eek out some funny one liners during the movie, mostly at the expense of Australian actor Stephen Peacocke (of Home and Away fame) who has so little to do during this movie I kept forgetting he was in it, apart from a gratuitous topless scene framed by two dogs banging away in the background — yes, you read that correctly. What’s annoying about the stale and straight lined relationship between the two stars is that just as it starts to throw a curve-ball into Baker’s best laid plans of Mice and Men, the movie ends without any sort of resolution.
Margo Robbie, managing to keep all her clothes on in this movie, plays Baker’s friend-turned-opponent who eventually betrays her trust and becomes the film’s quasi-villain. One can only assume she was cast in the movie to put emphasis on the fact that Baker is hitting her mid-life used-by date, although this is addressed so many times it’s hard to forget.
The true star of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, however, is Baker’s local fixer, Fahim Ahmadzai, played by American Christopher Abbott. As Baker’s long suffering fixer, Abbott manages to demonstrate both the frustration of the common people with the Westerners flooding their towns with cameras and guns as well as his own personal demons as he marries and becomes acutely aware that this white woman with a chip on the shoulder is putting himself and his future at increasing risk.
What’s amazing about Abbott’s performance is that he manages to do this not only under the shroud of a heavy beard and mustache but also with very few lines and screen time. As Baker gallivants from one dangerous situation to another, never particularly mindful of the risk she places herself and her compatriots under, we feel for poor Fahim, championing this suffering local who must almost betray his culture to earn a living working for who most Afghans (at the time) might very well look upon as the enemy.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot could have been a great movie. Journalists, not tied down with orders and rhetoric like the military units that they embed with, are often able to see the situation through the civilian population’s eyes — in fact, this is what they’re supposed to do. Unfortunately, Ficarra’s movie fails to show anything other than the view point of its protagonist who seems to be only thinking of herself and her career, rather than the lives and future of the people that she films. In one scene, Baker is confronted with a group of local tribal women who confide in her that they have been sabotaging the local well in order to maintain some sense of social bonding down by the river. This could have been a very poignant moment to show just how the intervention of “modern” Western culture and technology isn’t always beneficial to the local people, but Ficarra not only relies on having Baker tell the Marine General about her encounter (rather than show it), but makes it more a point about Baker integrating herself with the American Marines rather than with the local people.
In addition, for a land that’s supposedly so dangerous to both Westerners and women, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot declines to show the very real danger that the author of the source material must have been in whenever she set foot outside the journalists’ compound (aside from one quick cut where she is dropped off outside the wrong house without her necessary head scarf and then is miraculously discovered by MacKelpie), instead focusing more on the partying that apparently took more time than the production of actual journalism.
That being said, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does have some genuinely funny moments. To hear the Marine General’s thoughts on making love to a Gorilla (when do you stop? When the Gorilla’s had enough) made me laugh loud enough to embarrass my movie companion in a (thankfully) empty-ish theatre. It’s light hearted enough to enjoy as a fun, casual night out but, if you’re looking for a serious comment on the Afghan conflict, this isn’t the movie for you.
In the end, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s main failing isn’t that it doesn’t make a point. The problem is — it seems to try to make so many that they’re lost in translation.