Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was a box office flop in 2016, promoted widely as a laugh-out-loud comedy starring Tina Fey (30 Rock) and Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) but generating complete disinterest among audiences and disappointment among critics. The actual film is hardly a comedy at all, of course, and simply employs satirical elements to express its cynicism at what an aimless and mediocre the American invasion of Afghanistan was. That is a fairly long distance from what the market was promised; hence, I strongly suspect, their general abandonment of the film in theatres. This is a pity, since if taken on its own merits Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a reasonably entertaining movie. It is not exceptional, but it absolutely deserved a better reaction that the one it got.
Fey plays Kim Baker, a New York-based television journalist who takes up an open offer by her employer to move to Kabul and report on the US military invasion of Afghanistan. Once there she becomes addicted to the adrenalin rush of war reporting, while befriending a reporter from a rival network (Margot Robbie) and being seduced by a Scottish freelance photographer (Martin Freeman).
The film is adapted from a memoir by real-life journalist Kim Barker, The Taliban Shuffle, and is directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Content-wise there is not anything particularly original about it. Every one of the USA’s armed conflicts gets its own general style and aesthetic in its motion pictures. For World War II it was nobility and adventure. For the Vietnam War it was an aesthetic of damp, panicky horror. For the War on Terror, the overall tone really is one of clueless boredom: over-excited young men travelling into one desert or another and spending most of their time waiting for something to happen. When the violence does break out, it is often sudden and traumatic, but the waiting hangs over everything. The absurd let-down of going somewhere to fight and finding most of the combat being undertaken via satellite instead rises the the surface of these films again and again, and it rises up again in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
While there is nothing fresh to this take, it is played out in a sharply-developed fashion with definite moments of impact. One scene sees Baker, a little too comfortable in her Afghanistan lifestyle, finding herself both drunk and dropped off at the wrong house in suburban Kabul without a headscarf to preserve her modesty with the local population. Another displays an American air strike with visceral effect. As a profile of post-9/11 journalism it is tremendously effective – particularly as the occupation goes on, and viewers in the USA grow more interested in events over in Iraq.
The film basically marks Fey’s first major dramatic role, using her comedy skills more to season a more serious story than to actually gain big laughs. The comedic elements are in part so effective because they are so sparingly used. In Fey’s hands Baker is a likeable protagonist despite making poor decisions and serious mistakes. Margot Robbie chalks up another fine performance as fellow journalist Tanya Vanderpoel; between this and other recent roles, she is vast becoming one of Hollywood’s most valuable new actors. Martin Freeman, however, feels somewhat miscast, and loses his focus on the role by getting saddled with an awkward and unconvincing Scottish accent. It would have been much better to either allow his character to be English, or to recast entirely with an actual Scottish actor. What is presented on screen does not quite work despite glimmers of inspiration. An unexpected highlight among the cast is Christopher Abbott as Fazim Ahmadzai, an Afghan translator with whom Baker forms a specific connection. It’s a performance that is very subtle and effective, and marks Abbott as an actor to whom we should probably be paying more attention in future.
There are definitely stronger films out there than Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, but this solid, enjoyable blend of drama and comedy should not be overlooked simply because it failed to find an audience. Fey is rock-solid, as is Billy Bob Thornton in a relatively small but nicely low-key turn as a US marines general, and the smaller details among the broadly familiar story feel distinctive and entertaining. This may not be a classic, but it is definitely rather good.