Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the latest film starring Tina Fey, is most interesting as a war film that doesn’t engage with either patriotism or the discourse of brotherhood that is so paradigmatic of the genre. Instead, the story is told through the critical, somewhat jaded perspective of embedded reporters, whose job it is to ask tough questions and get the story of the war back home, even though audiences grow tired of war journalism.
The film is the story of Kim Baker (Fey), a reporter who has spent most of her career writing copy for “pretty, dumb” anchors to read. Because she is unmarried and childless, she winds up in a pool of candidates to travel to Afghanistan to cover the war. Because she is deeply dissatisfied with her life, she takes the chance. At first, Afghanistan is just as overwhelming to Baker as one would expect. With the help of British reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), her security guard Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott), and General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), she finds her footing and starts taking brave, stupid risks to get good coverage of the war. During her time in Kabul, Baker gets addicted to the adrenaline rush and is forced to ask questions about her motives, her love life and her career.
Although the film makes self-aware nods toward its limitations, I kept waiting for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to do something more compelling than the white lady travels to far-off land to find herself shtick. The narrative does pick up issues of gender and religion as Kim has to negotiate the strict rules for women in Afghanistan and the gender politics of the military. These moments never seem to go anywhere, however, and I wish that, the film had let Kim push as hard as it seemed like she wanted to. I also would have liked to have seen the film get more outside of the “Kabul Bubble.” It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to me, as the biggest roles for Afghans were played by actors of Italian descent, but the film dwells so much on the interaction between the reporters, that the interaction between the reporters and the people of Afghanistan is downplayed. Although the stories they cover seem really compelling in the newsreel footage shown, much less is shown about the activity of getting the story than of the hijinks back at the guest house where the reporters live.
Even though the narrative is more restrained and less incisive than it could have been, the acting in the film is excellent. Fey is both funny and strong, but without the trademark awkwardness that she brought to Liz Lemon. As Fahim, Baker’s real guide to the culture and terrain of Afghanistan, Christopher Abbott, does a lot with his character’s quiet presence. When he is frustrated with Kim’s recklessness, he makes you feel the tension she ought to. As Baker’s love interest, Martin Freeman is able to compellingly play a man who is kind of a snob and creep but still likable enough that you aren’t upset that Kim likes him. It’s impressive for an actor so known for playing nice guys.
In addition to the acting, WTF also features beautiful cinematography that balances both big picture shots such as gorgeous landscapes and military action and the small, important details that Kim picks up on in her travels and her reporting. This balance is one of the best parts of the film, as it works to convey both the wonder and the anxiety Kim feels during her time embedded.
As much as I enjoyed the details of the film, and was interested in the story, as a whole, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t quite satisfy. I rate it 3.5/5 stars.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was written by Robert Carlock and Kim Barker, based on her book, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and runs an hour and 52 minutes. Rated R.