Film Review: ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Courtesy of Paramount

Tina Fey goes to war in Afghanistan in this haphazard and often misguided war-zone dramedy.

The title of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is in some ways more interesting to contemplate than the movie itself: Some will immediately recognize it as military-alphabet-speak for “WTF,” while its jammed-together three-word construction may remind others of “Eat Pray Love” or “Zero Dark Thirty” — two movies that, improbable as it sounds, are among the many disparate influences here. Starring a game but tamped-down Tina Fey as a journalist embedded in Afghanistan in the mid-2000s, this haphazard fish-out-of-water dramedy tries to show how the rush of war can become its own weird escape from reality, but never really hits the surreal, satirical groove it’s aiming for. And despite the script’s direct acknowledgment that it’s telling a “white-American-lady story,” the movie never quite shakes off a glib, incurious outsider’s perspective that can tilt into outright cluelessness, particularly where some of its more egregious casting choices are concerned.

While it’s certain to outgross last year’s American-in-Afghanistan disaster, “Rock the Kasbah,” Paramount’s March 4 release may struggle to match the box office returns of Fey’s “Sisters,” which preceded it in theaters by less than three months. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” aims to recast the actress’s comic persona in a more thoughtful and tonally ambitious light: She’s playing a fictionalized version of the journalist Kim Barker, whose sharply observed 2011 memoir, “The Taliban Shuffle” — about her experiences covering Afghanistan and Pakistan — provides the general inspiration for the screenplay by Robert Carlock (Fey’s small-screen collaborator on “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”). Signaling the movie’s fast-and-loose way with the truth, Fey is playing not Kim Barker but Kim Baker, who is not a Chicago Tribune reporter but a general news producer for a TV network, stuck writing stories about the dangers of high-fructose corn syrup when, in 2004, a foreign correspondent’s position opens up in Afghanistan.

Being an ideal candidate for the job (childless and unmarried) and feeling ready for something new, Kim bids a temporary farewell to her boyfriend (Josh Charles) and jets off to Kabul, where she lands in a haze of dust, wind and low-grade slapstick: “Cover yourself, shameless whore!” a local woman yells at Kim (helpfully translated with subtitles), shortly before the hapless foreigner loses all her money. Fortunately, her local fixer and translator, Farouk (Christopher Abbott), is on hand to help her acclimatize to the desert temps and the restrictive dress code, though conditions are a bit more lax inside the cramped, frat-house-style quarters that Kim finds herself sharing with the other Western interlopers along for this crazy ride.

Chief among them are Tanya (Margot Robbie), a savvy, sexy reporter who cheerfully describes Kim as “a serious piece of ass” (in Afghanistan, at least); Nic (Stephen Peacocke), the buff, tattoo-covered security contractor who frequently catches Kim’s eye; and Iain (Martin Freeman), a rude, foul-mouthed British photographer whose initially barbed exchanges with Kim suggest it’s only a matter of time before they fall into bed. But then, as Barker’s book made clear, almost everyone has sex on the brain in this hot, sweaty and often tedious outpost: When Kim gets her first embed with a U.S. Marine unit, the first direct order she receives from the stern Gen. Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) is that she not sleep with any of his men. Even the Afghan prime minister, Ali Massoud Sadiq (a boisterous Alfred Molina), upon being introduced to Kim for the purposes of an interview, wastes little time in making thinly veiled romantic overtures to his new “special friend.”

This is hardly the first time directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have put a playful contemporary spin on romantic-comedy conventions, as evidenced by 2009’s “I Love You Phillip Morris,” 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” (perhaps we should be grateful the new movie isn’t called “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot.”), and last year’s “Focus” (which also co-starred Robbie). In this, their first picture centered entirely around a female protagonist, the directors would seem to have set themselves a difficult yet potentially rewarding challenge: a farce driven by equal parts friskiness and firepower, in which the challenges of being an American woman in a female-repressive society dovetail with the complications of a stuck-in-a-rut midlife-crisis comedy — call it “It’s Complicated in Kabul,” or perhaps “What Women Want in Wartime.”

Insofar as Barker’s book limned both the thrill and the tedium of life in a never-ending war zone, it’s hardly a knock that “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” often feels rough-hewn and scattershot, as lensed with jagged handheld roughness by d.p. Xavier Grobet, and briskly cut together by editor Jan Kovac. Evenness is not to be expected or desired from a movie that can veer from a fiery shootout with Taliban insurgents to a lazy afternoon hangout back at headquarters, with any number of jittery skirmishes and late-night drinking sessions in between. And given how many tediously well-meaning prestige pictures have approached Third World suffering through the eyes of a benevolent white do-gooder, there’s something refreshing in theory about a movie that attempts, in the grand tradition of “Catch-22” and “MASH,” to offer a jaundiced, cynical take on an impossible situation.

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” unfortunately, winds up feeling cynical for all the wrong reasons, and far less authentic than its generally convincing New Mexico desert locations. There’s a difference between seeing the darkly funny side of our nation’s recent geopolitical misadventures and twisting said misadventures into a blandly crowdpleasing formula, and the movie falls into that particular sand trap again and again: Its laughs, quite apart from being patchy and obvious, have the effect of puncturing what little tension or sense of danger Ficarra and Requa manage to muster. And it would take a far defter touch to bridge the gap between the pic’s hostile environs and the contemporary fairy tale it’s selling: Whether it’s a romantic subplot that gets resolved with a harrowing rescue mission, or a self-serving career move that winds up exacting collateral damage, any concessions here to the awful, harrowing reality of life during wartime register as little more than lip service.

Carlock’s script skims the surface of everything it touches, reliably losing interest at precisely the moment things might start to get, well, interesting — and unfortunately, that extends most of all to the character of Kim Baker/Barker herself. The movie unfolds between 2004 and 2006, at a time when the Iraq War is continually drawing attention and resources away from Afghanistan, and Kim, weary of life in the “Kabubble,” grows increasingly unhappy that the network keeps burying her stories — a conflict that carries zero weight, since the movie seems singularly uninvested in the matter of her actual skills as a journalist. Why blame the network when the movie itself can’t be bothered to show Kim’s exclusive interview with an Afghan warlord, but instead cuts away after a few lame gags?

Unlike her partner-in-crime Amy Poehler, Fey has yet to find a cinematic vehicle that really suits her less pointed, more self-effacing comic persona (“Mean Girls,” which she wrote, remains the highlight of her big-screen resume), and there’s something vague and shiftless about her work even in this ostensibly meaty part. Still, hers is a veritable triumph of casting next to the placement of Molina and Abbott in prominent Afghan roles. Never mind that they’re fine actors; Abbott, so wrenching in “James White,” retains his sweetly empathetic presence, and it’s understandable that Molina has become, like Omar Sharif and Ricardo Montalban before him, a master of many ethnic guises. But in the wake of the industry’s recent diversity woes, the decision to cast two white actors — in a movie that’s ostensibly about breaking down barriers and embracing the new— feels all the more resoundingly tone-deaf. What, were all the appropriate actors in Hollywood too busy being killed by Kiefer Sutherland on the latest “24” special? Whiskey tango foxtrot indeed.

Film Review: ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’

Reviewed at Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, Feb. 17, 2016. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production

A Paramount release and presentation of a Broadway Video/Little Stranger production. Produced by Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey, Ian Bryce. Executive producers, Charles Gogolak, Eric Gurian, Sam Grey. Co-producer, Jeff Richmond.

Crew

Directed by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa. Screenplay, Robert Carlock, based on the book “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Kim Barker. Camera (color, HD), Xavier Grobet; editor, Jan Kovac; music, Nick Urata; music supervisor, Jason Ruder; production designer, Beth Mickle; art directors, Elisa Viola, Derek Jensen; set decorator, Lisa Sessions Morgan; costume designer, Lisa Lovaas; sound (Dolby Digital), Benjamin A. Patrick; supervising sound editor, Paul Urmson; re-recording mixers, Skip Lievsay, Urmson; special effects coordinator, Stan Blackwell; visual effects supervisor, John Weckworth; visual effects, stunt coordinators, Charlie Croughwell, David Rowden; associate producer, Regan Riskas; assistant director, Stephen Hagen; casting, Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield.

With

Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Peacocke, Sheila Vand, Evan Jonigkeit.

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  1. Sarah says:

    We watched WTF last night after deciding to ignore reviews like this one. Here’s what I liked: 1. It reminded me a lot of the movie M*A*S*H in its overall vibe 2. I’d always wondered what kind of person takes an assignment as an embedded journalist. I can’t say how accurately it was portrayed here, but it was definitely believable to me and I felt emotional about their lives and relationships. 3. I liked the interaction KB (Fey) had with the different journalists, the fixer, the military leadership. In the end the movie made me cry because I was struck by the surrealism of war: people are expected to do their jobs while living under circumstances that would cause you to lose your effing mind if you weren’t able to use humor (and sex and drugs) to make it tolerable. I don’t watch a ton of movies, would’ve never known that the actors portraying Afghans were American (sorry) and I’m admittedly a Fey Fan, but I also know what I like. I’ll recommend this movie to my friends, for sure.

  2. Carole says:

    I’d just like to say that Christopher Abbott and Alfred Molina are hilarious in the movie. It’s produced by the Saturday night live people, it’s a comedy and maybe they just wanted the funniest actors. I liked the movie.

  3. Madame K says:

    I liked it. A lot. When you are in insane situations, you crack lame jokes. You struggle between self-interest and higher moral impulses. And if you’re a woman, you also put up with a lot of crap. Loved Tina Fey in this. Navel-gazing review above seems to be about a different movie. Yeah, the faux-Afghan castings are clueless, but the movie is realistic nonetheless. I was actually concerned Tina Fey would be her zany comedy persona, of which I’m getting a bit tired, so this was a solidly pleasant surprise. This is a damned good movie.

  4. KT says:

    How am I supposed to take this review seriously when the writer can’t even get the details of the movie right. Did he even watch it?? Her photographer love interest is Scottish, not “British,” and the story took place between 2003 and 2006 (not 2004-2006). If you’re going to trash a good movie with a strong female lead (is that what the writer really didn’t like?), you need to have actually watched the movie!

  5. Char says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the movie from start to finish. I got the point of the ‘addictive’ rush for individual with a previous mundane life, and the need to disengage and recognize the seriousness of such war activities. I also enjoyed the historical and Afghan culture weave. Characters were well developed. I didn’t know if I’d enjoy a movie centered in a war… but the choices of aliens, boy doll, criticized resurrection, terrorism in England themes didn’t appeal at all- a disconnect for me. I appreciated the moments of humor, otherwise too depressing. Mrs. M

  6. Alice Friend says:

    I disagree, and am fascinated and puzzled that so many reviewers share Chang’s perspective. There are very few laughs in this movie, which is a good thing because it makes for a better narrative. Of course they puncture tension with jokes–that’s what humans do when they’re in a war, they try to make light of it. But such jokes always fall flat to any outsider, because they aren’t all that funny unless nothing else around you is. As for taking her seriously as a journalist, the point of the opening scene of the film is to show you where the character winds up professionally: arguing with her producer over the phone while defending herself against sexual harassment in (presumably) Pashto, all while being unfazed by the mayhem and bloodshed after a bombing. Maybe this isn’t the clean-edged Hollywood vision of being a civilian woman in war, but thank goodness because that means it’s accurate. I think the Margot Robbie character is almost designed to be that counterpoint. As for “skimming the surface,” this movie is in the tradition of The Things They Carried: everything in war skims the surface and yet impacts you profoundly, and you can never tell what really happened. It is so perplexing because it is so quotidian and momentous at the same time. I liked that the movie didn’t pause, pollyanna-ish, to gee-whiz at the world. Fey’s character reacts realistically, with a simultaneous detachment and obsession. And I am not sure why, but most of the reviewers also missed that the movie isn’t woman-discovers-self, but woman-learns-about-the-addiction-to-adrenaline-of-conflict. In this way, it’s a commentary on all of civilian society. The care the film took to get military ranks and, most importantly, inter-service rivalry right (not to mention powerpoint briefings) is just one sign that the filmmakers did their homework and really got it. I wish reviewers would do the same.

  7. dee says:

    What is the deal with the over pedantic writing by writers on Variety?? It’s hard to follow the annoying techy wordy review. Stop trying to impress people with your vocabulary … and just get to the point! I don’t mind lengthy descriptions of the movie and what ‘you’ think of it; just be concise and CLEAR. I swear media and drugs are mixing very badly in this day and age.

    Anyway. WTF sucks just from the trailer alone. And when you put a mediocre ‘actress’ who is as funny as my … (let’s see, what metaphor can I use today while keeping it clean on here) my old, worn out stained coffee cup that says ‘Orange’ on it with the image of a slice of orange, you get a crappier movie to boot. Also, there are only about two or three ‘fake reviewers’ under comments. Now, that says something. Don’t waste your money and give these people your money either.

  8. Ben says:

    Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was a fun movie. We just saw a screening and thought it was great!

  9. I disagree I don’t think so absolutely not I want keifer Sutherland back NOW on 24 bring Jack Bauer back NOW before time runs out if you don’t I going to call my lawyer for good deal good

  10. Hal says:

    Chris White, who is anglo, and Alfred Molina, who is Spanish/Italian, play the Afghanis? Way to go liberal Hollywood.

  11. John G. says:

    “What, were all the Middle Eastern actors in Hollywood too busy being killed by Kiefer Sutherland on the latest “24” special?”

    Afghanistan is not in the Middle East, but in South Asia, the region which contains India and Pakistan. If the movie had taken place in a Middle Eastern country like Lebanon or Syria, Abbott (Italian/Portuguese) and Molina (Italian/Spanish) would be perfectly appropriate casting choices.

  12. AW says:

    Afghans are not Arabs.

    • Nilofar says:

      Thank you for saying this. As an Afghan, I can confirm that we are not Arab or Middle Eastern either. Just because we’re brown Muslims doesn’t mean we’re Arab. We speak completely different languages, don’t share the same culture, and we don’t border any Arab country either.

    • kenjimoto says:

      And Brits are not Scots!

  13. Michael Klossner says:

    Afghans are not Arabs.

  14. Bill says:

    Proving yet again that there is no review Variety cannot turn into a race-centered screed, sigh…

    • kenjimoto says:

      Well, if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s a newspaper, and its reviews tend to provide context about how the films got made and what responses they are likely to get in their intended markets.

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