Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
There's probably some pretty good reasons why there aren't too many "war comedies." Of course, the genre does exist, usually played more in the zone of "laughs" than for any political purpose or grand-standing. The difficulty with mashing genres (see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a more recent example) is that way too often, the film isn't strong in either of them. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (opening today, and for you perceptive ones, this is military-speak for "WTF") is a film that falls with a loud thud in that purgatory between genres: It is not all that funny, and it is not a very effective war movie.
And that's too bad, because Tina Fey seems - surprisingly - fit for dramatic duty. She plays real-life journalist Kim Baker, who is assigned to Afghanistan and Pakistan a few years after 9/11. There she embeds with a Marine unit led by pursed-lipped Col. Hollanek
(Billy Bob Thornton), along with her TV film crew, and is tasked with showing the hellish nature of Operation Enduring Freedom for the world to see.
A true fish-out-of-water, she leaves behind her boyfriend (Josh Charles) and befriends fellow journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) who has already scored some acclaim for her up-close war coverage. She is pursued romantically by another journalist, the greasy womanizer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) as well as a local well-to-do politician, the greasy womanizer Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfed Molina). How is the self-deprecating Tina Fey the object of so much affection? As she is told, in Afghanistan, she is more like a 9 or a 9.5 whereas in New York, she's more like a 4 or a 5.
Although Kim is not very comfortable, she shows early on a real-knack for journalism and lots of courage and tenacity to boot. When her unit comes under fire from enemy attackers, she rushes head-first into the action, camera-rolling. Now the real-life Kim Baker might have done the same, but on film, Kim is safe not because of luck or smarts, but because this is the sort of war film in which nobody dies or is really harmed in any way.
And herein lies the problem with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Not only is there no sense of real danger throughout Kim's time abroad, her barracks where she lives is portrayed as some sort of Club Med (Club Mediterranean?), where there is a party going on seemingly all day and all night. The war is not treated in any real way and the film has nothing to say in regards to it. This might be acceptable if the film was funny, but those entering the theater thinking that this is Liz Lemon on assignment, will be sorely disappointed. There are a few chuckles and light moments, but overall it would be a stretch to call this film a comedy, despite how it has been promoted.
To Fey's credit, she falls into the role quite nicely, but it's as if the script didn't trust in her...or perhaps it did not trust in the audience to buy her as anything less than a wry comic. Her early dialogue in the film is full of one-liners and smarmy, Fey-like responses, but as we dig in, she becomes more of a well-rounded human. In those later scenes, she definitely shows some cross-over potential. But WTF Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Why not go all-in and make her believable from the beginning? To say it another way, the movie begins with us well-aware that Tina Fey is in it, and it ends with us forgetting that Kim Baker was portrayed by Tina Fey.
It's also worthy to note that there is a great, grounded performance in this film by Christopher Abbott, who was an absolutely delightful find when he broke-through in 2015 with his performance in the little-seen James White. In this film, he plays an interpreter that befriends Fey and exposes her to some of the more human sides of the Afghan culture. Nearly unrecognizable as I watched the movie, it was no surprise that his performance stuck out to me once I realized who it was.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not all bad, it's just content with playing it safe. But is it a comedy? Is it a war film? And if it's neither, then just what the heck is it?
Genre: Comedy, War
Run Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun, Josh Charles, Cherry Jones
Based on the book "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan" by Kim Barker Written by Robert Carlock (first feature screenplay)
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love, I Love You Phillip Morris, Focus)
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