Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
"Put a turban on her and she'd make a handsome boy."
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot could have been so much better, should have been so much better. With Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey, a writer who's worked on 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the guys who wrote Bad Santa directing it, with this kind of talent involved in its creation, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot could have been one of the great war satires. It should have been able to stand shoulder to shoulder with M*A*S*H and Catch-22 and Tropical Thunder and Three Kings but instead it's just kinda… okay. It's good. Just not great. With the caliber of talent involved it could have been great, should have been great. Not good, great.
And it is good, just not good enough to recommend spending two hours in a theatre for. The funny bits are really funny, the dramatic parts are dramatic. But it never really comes together. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot covers three years in the life of copy writer turned war journalist Kim Baker, played by Tina Fey. The movie tells us we're watching someone change, become addicted to the war zone adrenaline rush. But we see so little of her before Afghanistan and her arrival in Kabul is more bumbling than naive that her evolution is kind of lost in the story telling. The movie spends the time telling when the time would have been better spent showing.
Adapted from the memoir The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn't the non-stop laugh riot the marketing suggests. It's more of a dramedy, with some dark moments and dramatic beats. The mix doesn't always work, there are moments when the change in tone suggests some interference from above, some tinkering by some suits and focus groups. The movie has an almost watered-down flavour to it, that someone was so afraid of offending anyone they tried to create a completely inoffensive war comedy. Sorry, dramedy. But in the watering down, someone somewhere made some seriously questionably decisions. In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot we have 2016's first nominee for the Aloha What Were They Thinking Award. Also known as the Emma Stone Facepalm Trophy. The very British character actor Alfred Molina plays Ali Massoud Sadiq, an Afghan politician and the very American Christopher Abbot plays Fahim Ahmadzai, an Afghan interpreter. I'm not really sure of the decision making process here, I'm not comfortable trying to work out the thinking that leads to these decisions. This is also a movie that casts an Afghan American, Fahim Anwar, as an Afghan fixer. And also cast Iranian American Sheila Vand. So, it's not a complete loss.
But, yeah, casting Western actors to portray non-Western characters is a little problematic. Adding some muddy makeup, a beard and some questionable eyeball bulging does not disguise the fact that the guy who played Dr. Octopus is playing an Afghan politician. Christopher Abbot is pretty amazing and brings an almost stoic minimalism to his part, he is pretty darned good. But, he is a guy that was born in Connecticut. There's no getting past the point here - this is a movie that cast two very Western actors as Afghans. We really haven't come that far since the days of Eli Wallach and Charlton Heston were playing Mexican characters. And I'm sure someone will bring up the Australian who plays a Canadian or that the very British Martin Freeman plays the very Scottish Iain MacKelpie. And they might think they're making a point but they're not. This was an opportunity to cast some of the incredibly talented and funny people who call that region of the world home. This was an opportunity to cast some non-Western folks in non-Western parts, major parts in a major motion picture and it was lost. Again.
And while I'm up on this soapbox, one more thing and then I'll get down. Can everyone stop writing 'Tina Fey is soooo plain' jokes? Please and thank you. It was funny for a while, like the first couple of seasons of 30 Rock, but it really doesn't work anymore and just seems sad and overplayed. There's no getting around the fact that Tina Fey is incredibly gifted, a serious talent and very, very pretty. The joke doesn't work, it's not funny and it does nothing but take us out of the film. Ten years ago it was funny because she wasn't blonde and tall and voluptuous, she was a kind of short brunette. In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot it almost comes across as a lame inside joke. I think by now her fans, and I'm one of them, are beyond the 'Tina Fey is soooo plain' joke. I'll get down from the soapbox now.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot features some great performances. Billy Bob Thornton is so damn good in this, so understated that I think I'm ready to forgive him for the mashed potato comment. He is almost channelling Sam Elliott here, but with a sarcastic edge that will cut you deep if you get too close. Margot Robbie is a lot of fun as a fun junkie journalist. Sheila Vand and Fahim Anwar steal the few scenes they're in. And Martin Freeman is charming and funny and his accent is almost believable at time. Other times, well, ever see a dog try to walk across an ice rink? Yeah.
And the film looks stunning, it's very well shot. And when it lands, it lands well. It just doesn't land enough to recommend it. Maybe as a rental or whichever way you prefer to watch films, wink wink. But like I said above, I can't recommend Whiskey Tango Foxtrot as a theatre going experience. In the filmmakers' attempts to avoid offending the military or nearly anyone, they've made the war film equivalent of those fruit mash cups you can buy in the grocery store. They're okay for you but they are pretty bland. Imagine if Three Kings or Catch-22 had pulled any punches, had walked away from a moment because it might, just might offend someone. I think if you can watch a film set in a war zone without once feeling uncomfortable, someone somewhere failed.