7.5 out of 10
Tina Fey as Kim Baker
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Review:
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the latest entrant in a distinguished line of war films holding that the exercise is not just hell but actually the stupidest activity human beings actively engage in. It’s a train of thought which has brought us everything from classics like M.A.S.H. to interesting experiments like 2014’s Rosewater but one which has not been played to seeming death (unlike the more straight version).
There is plenty of room still for, if not original commentary, than at least original antics. The question, and potential problems, stem from which side the new version will come down on (antics or drama) and how forcefully. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot gets out to a good head start with freshly-minted war correspondent Kim Baker (Fey) who gives up a good boyfriend and solid career as a producer for a national broadcast network to do something big with her life and cover the forgotten war in Afghanistan circa 2003.
Baker (a real reporter upon who’s book the screenplay by Robert Carlock is based) is selected because she is single with no children or family making her a low insurance risk if she dies in the field. This pretty well sums up the sardonic banality-taken-to-absurd-lengths point-of-view Whiskey Tango Foxtrot takes with the war and everyone connected to it.
A key subplot early on revolves around a well the Marine company Baker is embedded with which keeps being destroyed and rebuilt. From the Marine’s low-key acceptance of the ridiculousness of the situation to the unfortunate general in charge (Thornton) facing his and the Afghans’ competing understanding of the world they live in, the moment is pitch perfect and hilarious.
Co-directors Ficarra and Requa (Focus) have made a string of films already which identify and play with such silliness and what could be straight-forward stories. Combining that skill with a potent combination of strong writing and casting occasionally boosts Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to the level of its most illustrious forebears, though those moments are ultimately fleeting.
Carlock and star Fey (Sisters) have developed a potent working relationship in the years since their time on Saturday Night Live together, including the critically-lauded “30 Rock” and co-creating “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” together. As a result, even without a writing credit, Fey’s particular voice is loud and clear in the film from its quirky characters – often defined solely by their strangest characteristic like the Afghan fixer who is a connoisseur of man-on-donkey porn – to unexpected and hilarious punchlines.
Like a Sorkin screenplay, the film is such a product of its writing that the directors are largely able to sit back and let their very game cast loose with the recognition that if it doesn’t give them real depths to plunge – it at least gives them something fun to do while they’re around. Freeman, Molina and Thornton are particular stand outs – not coincidentally, they are the most experienced actors in the cast and know how to play big moments with care – though it is Abbot as Baker’s low-key former doctor turned fixer who tends to upstage everyone when he is around.
The weaknesses it does have revolve around Fey herself. Because she is playing a real person in a more or less true story, she is frequently forced to play the straight man next to the over-the-top personas the film is filled with. It’s a decision similar to an NFL team forcing its star quarterback to suddenly become a receiver; they can probably do it but you’re not really getting your money’s worth.
The benefit of this is that Kim gets to develop beyond just the in-over-her-head tics Fey has used so well in other films, as Kim – like the man staring into the abyss and finding it staring back – finds the craziness of Afghanistan transforming her into an adrenalin junkie who will do whatever it takes for one more big story.
It’s good to see Fey stretching, but compared with many of the other cast members, it is very obvious stretching. A fish out of water carrying an orange back-pack into a war zone she does very well; a hardened war reporter stepping over human remains to report a bombing she has less experience with. The best that can be said of many of those scenes is that she gets them done.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not ‘just’ a comedy, though; or at least it doesn’t want to be, spending much of the second half looking for a unifying thought besides ‘war is silly’ and finding it inside Kim’s own sense of self. When her hyper real life as a war correspondent suddenly morphs into friends and colleagues being blown up and kidnapped, she must decide if it is time to wake up and be an adult or risk falling down the rabbit hole of living for war forever.
It’s not the strongest possible note to end on – particularly once romance is thrust into the equation – and enhances rather than hides the fact that true story narratives do not fit well in classic film three act structures.
That said, there is too much talent, skill and entertainment value at play in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot for the film to be badly derailed, it just tends to lose momentum quickly in the second half. But for an hour or so it’s a gut-busting and frequently-illuminating journey into America’s forgotten war.