Silver Screen: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ****
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a smart, funny, exciting, infuriating, breezily informative movie. It’s more immersive and illuminating than the vast majority films about America’s misguided incursions into the Middle East, and almost (if not quite) as insightful a journalism procedural as recent best picture winner Spotlight.
And it won’t be a commercial hit.
The impediments: For one, war fatigue. Americans at large are, somewhat understandably, exhausted with the protracted and frustratingly amorphous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a point the movie’s plucky protagonist herself makes when she argues for more airtime for her dispatches from Kabul.
But from a strictly cinematic perspective, the movie is hobbled by its defiance of easy categorization. There’s no one genre to which it belongs, no convenient label even by the rubric of Netflix’s oddly specific categories (Funny but Thoughtful True Feminist War Reporter Stories).
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on journalist Kim Barker’s book The Taliban Shuffle, an account of her time as an unlikely overseas correspondent during the early years of America’s two-fronted War on Terror. (The movie’s title is militaryspeak for W.T.F., which is an acronym politely translated as “I am both bewildered and angered by this perplexing situation!”)
Baker spent the early part of her career as a more traditional journalist covering softer domestic stories until, seeking escape from her cloistered life, she opted for a dangerous job for which was barely qualified or prepared. As played by the magnificent Tina Fey, she’s in over her head but smart enough to know that, and to adapt.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t have an especially propulsive narrative or a clearly defined goal. In that sense, it actually mirrors the war itself. Kudos to screenwriter and frequent Fey collaborator Robert Carlock for not imposing some phony structure and instead letting that pseudo-aimlessness become an implicit critique of the war.
That same critique is made a little more explicit when Baker contacts the flinty General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), who is at that moment sitting in a meeting before a hopelessly convoluted flowchart illustrating the military’s mission priorities. “Got a minute, general?” she asks, to which he replies, “If I understand this correctly I’ve got all the time in the F-ing world.”
It’s darkly funny, portentous moments like this, and odd and irascible characters like Hollanek or the gregarious, egomaniacal Afghan politician Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina), that make up the film’s compelling mosaic. The throughline is Baker’s growing awareness of the realities of newsgathering during war, and of herself, but the movie is most fascinating in its scores of little insights.
Baker is caught in the midst of a series of overlapping culture clashes. She has to adjust to life among her fellow embedded journalists, including glamorous TV personality Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and carousing Scotsman Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), as well as the mores of a culture driven by religious fundamentalism. She has an especially touching relationship with her stoic but protective translator Fahim (Christopher Abbott). Their bourgeoning mutual trust, amid all the fighting, is the movie’s most hopeful element, suggesting that we might be able to get along even if we don’t always entirely understand one another.
Codirectors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa do an impressive job juggling action, horror, hilarity, and humanity. They’re an odd pair. Their two most successful movies, the smug Focus and the insipid Crazy, Stupid, Love are their worst. Meanwhile, the duo— who also cowrote the new Christmas classic Bad Santa— helmed the woefully underappreciated Jim Carrey oddity I Love You Phillip Morris and now this.
There’s nothing ambiguous about Fey. She’s a rocketship full of talent. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot pushes her even further intro dramatic territory than previous dramedies Admission and This Is Where I Leave You, but she’s up to the task. It’s ideal casting, as Baker herself is far beyond her comfort zone. Fey is so comically graceful that she minimizes the difficulties of carrying a movie with such a vacillating tone. She’s not just Liz Lemon abroad, nor does she lapse into default serious mode. As with Carrey’s incredible work in I Love You Phillip Morris, Fey’s efforts here will probably go mostly unheralded. But that doesn’t make them any less impressive, nor does Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s lack of mainstream commercial viability make it any less of a success.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.