Film Review – Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) is a classic example of “Tourist Cinema.” We’re led to believe this to be a comedic take on war journalism in Afghanistan circa early 2000s. What we actually get is a self-absorbed story of a privileged white American in the midst of a mid life crisis, whose idea of self-fulfillment is experiencing a different culture at arm’s length. It’s as obnoxious as bloggers wanting to experience “authentic” foreign delicacies by eating food sold on the street. There’s no insight here, any contrast in culture is used to give the protagonist a fake sense of enlightenment. This is less Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and more Eat Pray Love (2010).
There’s a scene midway through where journalist Kim Baker (Tina Fey) explains the reason she took the job of covering the conflict in the Middle East soon after 9/11. After a discussion about how she came to her decision while riding a stationary bike, another character calls her reason “the most American White Lady Story” they’ve ever heard. Well, just because the narrative points this out doesn’t give it a pass for being exactly that. In an environment where people are routinely killed, there’s little incentive for us to care about someone bored with their desk job.
The story is so tone deaf that we’re not sure if we’re supposed to take it at face value or as satire. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa direct Robert Carlock’s screenplay without finding the correct footing. At one point, we’re meant to laugh while Kim falls victim to the fish out of water experience. She’s so unprepared that when she accidentally drops a handful of money, she’s shocked to see locals scrambling to grab some. When she drinks too much water to stay hydrated, her military escort has to stop while she takes a potty break. But then we’re supposed to be startled back into reality when Kim experiences a firefight. We never know what kind of movie we’re supposed to be watching.
War journalism is (obviously) is a difficult but necessary job. It gives the world a picture of combat words can’t explain. Kim Baker is a real journalist, and her work in the Middle East should be respected. But the film (adapted from her book) doesn’t paint a full picture, especially concerning her job. We don’t see the skill of her reporting, they come and go in flashes. During televised correspondence with the network, we only get the very end of her reports. In scenes where she interviews important people, the editing cuts away entirely. One instance has her interviewing a known warlord, one of the most important moments of her career. Unfortunately the interview is never seen, replaced by a cheap gag where he comments how Kim would make a handsome boy if she wore a turban.
Tina Fey gives one of her best performances. She’s given the opportunity to play a character utilizing her comedic ability while providing a dramatic turn. The biggest highlight is Fey’s charisma on screen. Hopefully this will garner her bigger roles in the future. Everyone else, however, are paper-thin characterizations that add little substance to the proceedings. Margot Robbie’s Tanya is a fellow journalist whose success Kim wants to attain. But instead of exploring her ambitions with the job, we see Tanya as a party girl, showing Kim a good time in a war-ravaged land. Her biggest advice is that in the states Kim would be a 6 or 7 to potential lovers, but in close confines of Kabul she can shoot up to a 9. This comes in handy when she meets photographer Iain (Martin Freeman) a guy she hates – which of course means they’ll end up in the sack together.
One of the better themes of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the addictive nature of being a journalist. Covering historical events and notifying the public gives reporters a jolt – a feeling of doing something important. This drive can be dangerous, as the desire for the big scoop can put someone in harm’s way. Sadly, this element is given no real juice regarding Kim. She’s never really shown how dangerous her actions are. Only one scene has her put into a risky position, but the blowback she gets is the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. She continues her recklessness as though she’s above the fray. The only time she gets “tired of it all” and considers returning home is after she covers a big story. She gets her cake and eats it too.
The use of other characters to help Kim reach emotional satisfaction is beyond aggravating. Afghan women show up to call Kim a godless whore when she uncovers her hair or holds a man’s hand. Alfred Molina’s high-level Afghan official is a buffoon, a sex-craved pervert intent on making Kim his “special friend.” The worst example is of a young Marine injured on the job. In what’s supposed to be a dramatic scene, the Marine consoles Kim in her moment of weakness. Let me repeat that: a Marine, who was badly injured serving his country, is the one who has to tell Kim to keep her head up and stay strong. The execution is handled very poorly – it’s by far the most cringe inducing scene. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? “WTF” indeed.