Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a dramedy that isn’t funny enough to make it memorable as a comedy, and it isn’t moving enough to make it memorable as a drama. It’s muddled, not really sure what it wants to be. The movie suffers immensely from this lack of commitment. It also actively refuses to take any meaningful stance on the issues central to its plot – journalists covering the American invasion of Afghanistan – leaving the picture like a news story that fails to inform or entertain.
The story revolves around real life American journalist Kim Baker and her adventures while covering the war in Afghanistan. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (the military phonetic alphabet translation of the letters WTF, so the title is a joke on the popular shortened version of the expression “What the fuck?”) is based on Baker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shepherded through the book-to-screen process by star Tina Fey’s production company Little Stranger, the movie transforms its war-torn backdrop into a self-discovery tale with a splash of romantic comedy. It’s an unlikely setting for such a story, one the filmmakers would have been wise to avoid.
There is a scene in the middle of WTF when an Afghan woman asks Baker what made her decide to travel half way around the world to cover the war. Fey, as Baker, sums up her need to escape her life using the exercise bike at her gym to illustrate her point. Baker tells the woman that one day she noticed an indentation in the carpet just in front of her regular stationery bike. She realized it was where the bike used to sit before a gym employee moved it for one reason or another. In that moment, Baker says, she understood she had spent countless hours on that bike, only to move backward three feet. “Wow,” her interlocutor observes, “that’s the most American white lady story I’ve ever heard.”
It’s a funny moment to be sure, and it’s a sly attempt at winking at the audience. We know exactly what kind of story we’re telling, the movie says, and our effort at being up front about it will hopefully earn us some points with you, the audience. It doesn’t, though, because despite this self-awareness by the filmmakers, the rest of the movie is as predictable as you would expect. WTF is Eat, Pray, Love goes to war, and that’s just as disappointing of an exercise as you might expect.
The screenplay was written by Fey’s comedy partner-in-crime at Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, Robert Carlock. The duo must have thought they could impose their brand of irreverent comedy on Baker’s memoir, the kind that made 30 Rock and Liz Lemon so iconic. It should be a vehicle tailor-made to suit Fey’s carefully cultivated screen persona – the misfit who is awkward professionally and personally, but who gets the job done when it really matters. Unfortunately, the result is uninspired. The final product unsuccessfully attempts to meld two clashing tones, without having the conviction to stake out any original territory. By the end, I was left asking myself the same question the character Baker struggles with throughout the movie, “Why am I here?”
If there is something to praise about the movie, it’s without a doubt the performances. Tina Fey is endlessly likeable as Kim Baker. Her self-deprecating, fish out of water persona is one that Fey has meticulously crafted and perfected. It may be ill-fitting for the overall tone of this movie, but as a performance in and of itself, Fey does it better than anyone. Martin Freeman is devilishly fun as the unlikely love interest for Baker. The British actor delivers an impeccable Scottish brogue as lecherous freelance photojournalist Iain MacKelpie. Margot Robbie is quite good as Australian correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel, but there is a scene late in the film concerning a betrayal between her and Baker that falls rather flat. Because the rest of the movie is handled with such a light touch, the angry exchange fails to land with any dramatic punch.
Billy Bob Thornton turns up as Marine General Hollanek, giving easily the weakest performance by virtue of the fact that he’s on complete autopilot. It’s hard to fault Thornton personally, seeing as he’s playing a stock character that could stand-in for every male authority figure that kept Jessica Chastain from catching Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. While infinitely talented character actor Alfred Molina is excellent (despite the horrible fake beard) in his role as the Afghan government official who develops a crush on Baker, the Hollywood white-washing is hard to ignore. Molina is an English actor who has played just about every ethnicity you can imagine: Peruvian, Mexican, Russian, Iranian, he’s done them all. Considering the particular climate surrounding this issue, it would have been heartening to see the filmmakers give this role to an actual Arabic actor. There is no doubt countless such actors who could have done fantastic work in the role. The same goes for Baker’s Afghan “fixer,” Fahim Ahmadzai, played by American actor Christopher Abbott.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot had some moments that made me chuckle. It also had fleeting moments when I was invested in the dramatic thrust of the story. One surprisingly tense moment comes when Baker is desperate for a news story, so she convinces Fahim the Fixer to take her to the dangerous Kandahar, where women must wear full-body burqas. Baker, in her determination to show she can get hard hitting footage, unwittingly walks into an area reserved for men only. When the men there notice the figure shrouded by the burqa and become angry at the female interloper, I was genuinely invested in finding out what would happen next.
For every successful moment like that, though, there are bizarre artistic choices that kill the film’s dramatic propulsion. Late in the film one of our heroes is kidnapped by terrorists, and the military raid to rescue the character is set to Harry Nilsson’s soft rock hit Without You. It’s meant to be clever and ironic, but only succeeded in taking me out of the story, since the moment isn’t earned by anything that preceded it. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot offers a few laughs, a few moments of suspense, but is ultimately too bland an exercise to be remembered.
Why it got 2 stars:
- I know I'm the Forgetful Film Critic, but this movie would be hard not to forget even if I had a good memory. I only used the word bland once in my review, but that really is the overarching impression WTF leaves.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- It's hard to say WTF was a major disappointment for me. I knew next to nothing going into the movie, and what little I did know didn't really pique my interest. But, I am a big Tina Fey fan. 30 Rock was hilarious, as was her memoir, Bossypants. So, it was a disappointment that she wasn't able to bring the funny here.
- Seriously, read Bossypants. Better yet, listen to the audio version, read by Fey herself. It's good stuff.