In Hollywood’s hands, combat can be stirring, heartbreaking or amusing.
The tradition of the satirical war film is a rich one: Dr. Strangelove, Catch-22, MASH and Three Kings are but a few of the masterful syntheses of comedy and tragedy in war-time settings.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not one of those.
The potential is certainly there — the film is adapted by Robert Carlock from war correspondent Kim Barker’s The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, chronicling her years spent covering the United States’ post-9-11 invasion of the two countries — but in the hands of directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, that potential is squandered.
Tina Fey also continues her mostly uninspired run of films — Hollywood’s inability to find a project well-suited to her immense talent remains baffling — portraying Kim Baker (as she is renamed here), a news copy writer for a cable TV news channel in New York, who impulsively plunges into the chaos of covering a war. (The real Barker was the Chicago Tribune’s South Asia bureau chief from 2004 to 2009.)
The shift from print to TV is the first indicator that Foxtrot intends to take the easy way out.
The shift from print to TV is the first indicator that Foxtrot intends to take the easy way out — who wants to watch a reporter take notes and write stories, when they can spout exposition in front of a camera? — and coming on the heels of Best Picture Oscar winner Spotlight, Foxtrot represents a return to the movies’ default depiction of journalism.
While Foxtrot gives some inkling of the difficulties of reporting from the front lines, far more of the run time is given over to rom-com entanglements and off-camera banter. Not that the film needed to be a docudrama, but a little balance might have helped.
Baker quickly befriends the glamorous Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), who glides through the grime, and soon becomes acquainted with rascally Scottish journalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) and the high-level Afghan official Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina).
Baker learns the ropes, earning the trust of General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) and familiarizing herself with the often-mystifying customs of her host country. (One of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s few bright spots involves an incredulous Baker being forced to wear a burqa to report in Kandahar.)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s biggest misstep is a failure to find the right tone.
Much of the first hour is so breezy and mock-filthy . . .that when gruesome war violence intrudes upon the narrative, the film can’t handle the shift.
Much of the first hour is so breezy and mock-filthy — profanity is scattered about less for emphasis than for show — that when gruesome war violence intrudes upon the narrative, the film can’t handle the shift. It reaches its nadir during a nighttime raid, ostensibly a high-stakes affair to rescue a kidnap victim, scored by Harry Nilsson’s Without You and punctuated with wisecracks.
Fey and the cast — particularly Freeman and Molina, both of whom rip into their roguish roles with relish — try to anchor Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which was shot in New Mexico, a not-entirely convincing double for Afghanistan. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the end result is a war in which everyone — and especially the audience — loses.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
☆ ☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Cast: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Billy Bob Thornton
Rating: R (pervasive strong language, sexual content, drug use and violent war images)
Run time: 112 min.