Directed by: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Premise: Adapted from the nonfiction book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker. A sheltered reporter (Tina Fey) takes a field assignment in Afghanistan and adapts to life in a war zone.
What Works: The work of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa has a particular tone and a singular sense of humor. This is seen in their other films such as Bad Santa, Focus, and I Love You Phillip Morris. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot retains the filmmakers’ sense of wit but it is a more accessible film than their early work and it mixes dark comedy and drama very well. This film is the story of a woman with little experience as a field reporter and no experience in war zones who is thrust into the midst of the American occupation of Afghanistan. The movie captures the absurdity that is inherent to militarism and warfare and at times the movie recalls Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, especially an early interview montage in which the reporter speaks to Marines stationed at a military outpost. However, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not really about the experiences of soldiers. Rather, it is about a reporter who must acclimate to the physical and mental requirements of doing her job in a stressful environment. Tina Fey stars as Kim Baker, a fictionalized version of the Chicago Tribune’s former South Asia bureau chief Kim Barker. Fey has had great success in television but less so in feature films. But in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Tina Fey steps up her performance and she carries the movie and expands her skills as an actor. Fey brings her usual brand of sassiness to the role but she’s also playing a full-fledged character and the story has some dramatic beats that are very resonant. Among the more impressive aspects of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the way the filmmakers navigate the opening. The movie has to portray Fey’s character as inept and inexperienced but not helpless; she makes rookie mistakes but she’s not stupid. Fey and the filmmakers handle this terrifically and the character’s underdog position puts the audience on her side while the portrayal of life in a warzone unfolds through her eyes. That gives the story of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot a narrative shape and the movie presents these events in a way that is dramatically satisfying. In showing the story from this woman’s point of view, the filmmakers are also able to deal with the sexism of both the warzone and of Afghanistan’s patriarchal culture and it does that slyly and effectively but without grandstanding.
What Doesn’t: The combination of the wit of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and the casting of Tina Fey creates an artifice about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot that prevents the movie from ever being truly dangerous or subversive. This is a movie about a sheltered middle aged woman who has been thrust into a warzone but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot rarely conveys the actual danger that these people are in. The incessant hard partying among the reporters and security personnel inside the press bubble is a release of the stress that comes from living in a warzone. But Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t quite capture the climate of paranoia that leads to this behavior nor does it put the audience in the headspace of someone suffering through it. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot also comes up short as a subversive film or even a meaningful exploration of the Afghanistan mission. The movie does suggest that the war has been forgotten by the American public and it does effectively (and rightly) point the finger at media executives who have purged the topic from the airwaves. But for a movie about a reporter in a warzone there is very little in it that illuminates the conflict or comments upon why Americans are in Afghanistan in the first place.
Bottom Line: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is one of the better films in the subgenre of post-September 11th war pictures. Granted, that is a short list. But the movie is an entertaining and thoughtful portrayal of field reporting and of a woman redefining her sense of self.
Episode: #586 (March 13, 2016)