Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Plays It Safe and Suffers for It

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Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Photo: Paramount Pictures

The war sort-of comedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot stars Tina Fey as an Afghanistan-based news correspondent, which means that, if nothing else, she now has more foreign-policy experience than Sarah Palin. Damn, I hoped it would be great — harsher and “sicker” (in the Terry Southern, National Lampoon sense) than all the over-earnest War on Terror films of the last decade. Behind the camera are Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Saturday Night Live, and gonzo-comedy vets: writer Robert Carlock, co-producer Lorne Michaels, and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who wrote Bad Santa. The source material is Chicago Tribune South Asian bureau chief Kim Barker’s barbed memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was the potential here for another M*A*S*H (Robert Altman’s movie, not the aggressively humanistic TV series).  

I know what you’re thinking: “Dream on.” Maybe that kind of movie would be made for premium cable or Netflix or Amazon these days, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot turns out to be a weak broth. I was rooting for it so hard that I told myself I liked it even as it missed one mark after another. But in the end it’s just shapeless and apolitical.

Well, there is a watered-down feminist message, if that’s your idea of political. Fey’s Kim Baker — the loss of an “r” from Baker’s name strikes me as symbolic, as if the writer were telling us the jokes would be more family-friendly — is now a lifestyle-news TV producer instead of a newspaper reporter. She’s tapped for Afghanistan because the big-deal correspondents have moved on to Iraq, and because she’s single and without kids. Pretty humiliating, right? When she arrives in Afghanistan, she’s doesn’t know the language so she can’t hear the Afghans’ ridicule. She’s also a klutz. And she’s quickly reminded of her not-hotness — the movie’s view, not mine — by the presence of a conventionally gorgeous Aussie blonde TV reporter played by Margot Robbie. Still, Baker is told, a “4” or “6” at home is, given the paucity of Western women, a “10” in Afghanistan.

I have a female colleague who gets annoyed that Fey seems to go out of her way in her movies to deride her looks, as if she weren’t such an attractive woman. So the movie makes hay out of the way an Afghan government official (Alfred Molina), whose job is to crusade against alcohol and immorality, constantly puts the moves on her. Presumably for commercial reasons Whiskey Tango Foxtrot needs a love story, so Martin Freeman turns up as a Scottish photographer who starts out sleazy and evolves into a puppy dog. He’s adorable, but by the time he starts talking about getting serious the helium has gone out of the movie.

You might have winced when you read that Molina plays an Afghan official. You might again when you read that Christopher Abbott — best known from Girls but revelatory in last year’s film James White — is Baker’s fixer and translator, Fahim. So it’s another movie in which non-Westerners are played by Americans and Brits with ruddy makeup. For the record, Molina is amusing and Abbott, on his own terms, entirely credible. But the response on social media has been justly fierce. Doesn’t Hollywood ever learn?

Reading Barker’s book, I was struck by how incisive it is, and how the carnage is not just tragic but the product of chaos and misdirection. It’s packed with episodes that would have been startling onscreen and with crazy-scary characters who’d have burned a hole in the screen. Barker’s descriptions of U.S.-endorsed president Hamid Karzai and his murderous, corrupt family are brutal. But Karzai isn’t in the movie, and criticism of how the occupation is being managed is confined to exasperated looks by a general (Billy Bob Thornton, who’s superbly caustic). The only real criticism is reserved for higher-ups at Baker’s TV network, who don’t think Americans care about the day-to-day outrages of life in Afghanistan. That seems rather hypocritical given how much is left out of this movie!

I liked watching Fey, who’s learning to be a real actress — to stop pulling sitcom faces and just be. It’s fun to watch her go from helpless to hard-charging, mastering the language and trying to see past the propaganda on all sides. But the part isn’t filled in, and the movie has a huge omission: When Baker announces that she has gotten too used to the madness of Afghanistan — that she’s worried it’s starting to seem too normal — the sentiment comes out of nowhere. Her dramatic arc, like the film’s, disintegrates.

How did Whiskey Tango Foxtrot go wrong? My guess is in the usual way. The people holding the purse strings probably said that Americans don’t like politics, that they’d be offended by absurdist comedy when American soldiers are dying in Afghanistan, and that the heroine had to be “likable” and meet a cute guy. Those calculations are in the name of selling more tickets in the multiplex, but the odds are the movie will bomb anyway for having no distinct point of view. It’s not so much bad as dismayingly bland. It’s WTF for all the wrong reasons.