Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, like the forgotten, motivationally hazy war it’s set it, resides in constant conflict. In fact, it seems most comfortable there. Based on the years Kim Barker (Tina Fey) spent as an international journalist covering the Afghanistan War in Kabul, the movie piles on innocuous troubles while a war tears a country apart. Many of the film’s problems grow out of its chaotic docility. The movie wants to be sharp, biting and R-rated, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot never has anything to say. At their correspondent compound, the journalists drink heavily, party frequently and seem to care little about the goings-on of what they’re actually covering (including Margot Robbie playing a role too self-confident and competent for a Hollywood movie not to ruin it). The military comes away looking heroic if misguided, the reporters as possible adrenaline junkies and the Afghans as scenery.
Staying beyond the length of her original assignment, Baker’s midlife crisis that brought her to the war zone is aptly called “the most white-lady problem I’ve ever heard.” A dead-end job, a dead-end boyfriend, a dead-end life. So instead of eating, praying and loving her way across Europe, she decides Afghanistan will be her Oprah-dictated me-time. Her support system, the translator/fixer Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) and General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), barely tolerate her while Scottish photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) and Alfred Molina’s lecherous Afghan government official Ali Massoud Sadiq pursue her. (For a journalist-centric movie, they sure are vague on the details.) While Fey brings so much life and charisma to the role, it’s like bringing life and charisma to a credit card commercial. You can only be so fun to watch until we’re stuck wondering “what’s the point?”
Kim’s various screw-ups as a combat and/or Middle East newcomer, however dangerous in theory, never come at any higher price than a finger wag, while most are rewarded. While Baker eventually leaves Kabul with, you guessed it, a new lease on life, she never really seems to have learned anything, found happiness (in a combination of work and her personal life) or gained useful expertise. Shapeless empowerment at the price of moral and physical invincibility is too high.
This sounds like I hated this movie. I didn’t. Regardless of the toothless script (which finds a little of that 30 Rock zing in the very last minute with a line about Brezhnev and a wonderful, tiny supporting part by Evan Jonigkeit), the character interplay is eminently watchable because the actors are operating at their peaks. Abbott and Molina bring complex, underserved pathos and gleeful scuzziness, respectively, while Freeman and Thornton are completely lovable dicks. Fey has that Clooney star quality of intangible confidence, even when beaten down to nothing or playing the biggest buffoon. It’s hard to imagine rooting against her because, like Clooney, even with her wit, looks and perfect delivery, she always manages to feel like an underdog. There’re also hints of a far more interesting story focused on feminism, as sexually and professionally competent women struggle with each other’s ambitions.
There’s a version of this movie for which Fey receives an Oscar nomination. That version finds purchase in its conflicts, planting them into the character and letting the roots spread throughout, watching the emotional consequences play Plinko throughout her psyche. Sadly, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot lets everything slide off easily, with its few scenes of intense and well-directed military bombast feeling completely disjointed from the rest of the film. It’s not a bad movie, but no matter how long it spends in the war zone, it still feels like a tourist.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.