Release: Wednesday, March 4, 2016
Written by: Robert Carlock
Directed by: Glenn Ficarra; John Requa
The civilian translation of this film’s odd title applies to this strange concoction in more ways than I’m sure the filmmakers intended. I left the picture feeling more confused about American relations with the Middle East than I did entering it. Perhaps that’s the point? There’s also the pressing question of what Tina Fey is doing in a war film (oh, that’s right — this is a war comedy).
The latter is the lesser issue, as it is interesting seeing the former SNL Weekend Update star (and in this reviewer’s opinion, Amy Poehler’s better half) adapting to more serious material. Fey disciplines herself enough to seem 75% believable as Kim Barker, a TV producer (in reality she was a writer for the Chicago Tribune) who one day decides to volunteer as a war correspondent in Afghanistan in an effort to induce some excitement into her otherwise monotonous life. In New York. I’ll pause now to let you ponder the irony of that sentiment. In effect she becomes one of an elite few female embedded reporters in the region, often putting herself in harm’s way to get video footage she hopes will sell back in the States.
The 25% that does not work so well manifests as a combination of Fey’s inexperience in the genre and the film’s complete lack of focus. Schizophrenically it oscillates from championing 21st Century notions of ’embracing the suck’ and ‘living in the moment’ to somberly reminding the viewer of the devastating effects of war. A graphic scene towards the end feels like a clip from an altogether different movie as we watch a convoy fall victim to a short-range missile attack. When she’s not out in the field Fey’s still-adjusting-Barker is avoiding sexual advances from her international colleagues as well as a randy Afghan politician played for some reason by Alfred Molina. As she navigates her own personal minefield, soldiers are elsewhere in the background, maneuvering around actual ones. It’s an odd experience.
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa adapt Barker’s memoir ‘The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.’ In it, Barker assumed a humorous tone as she relayed the oftentimes clunky process of assimilating to a part of the world where sanitation is a major issue, women have alarmingly few rights and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) litter the arid landscape. The story is fundamentally about orienting one’s self in an entirely disorienting environment but it also contends with a variety of other issues that play upon the psyche such as the presence (or lack thereof) of female reporters in this field — Australian correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) rounds out the numbers here — and how those who have had a lot of exposure to this kind of reality begin to view it as a normal routine, a psychological state not even Barker is immune to.
The assignment originally called for a three-month stay in Kabul. As she continues building her portfolio — candid interviews with soldiers voicing their opinion on the effectiveness of Operation Enduring Freedom; a chat with Afghan women who tampered with an American-installed water well in their village because they preferred to walk to the river as it offered them an opportunity to socialize with one another — Barker finds it increasingly more difficult to leave, to dispense with the chaos. (Plus, the parties in Kabul seem really, really fun.)
Generally speaking this is a sympathetic and optimistic portrait of the American presence in the Middle East. It offers viewers a closer look at the realities facing troops in one of the most hostile regions on earth while filtering it through the perspective of an inexperienced female reporter from Manhattan. It’s all too easy to make judgments about Barker’s presence — Billy Bob Thornton’s gruff General Hollanek immediately takes a disliking to her given her choice of brightly-colored travel luggage — but one of the advantages of the film hop-skip-and-jumping around its many themes is that we don’t spend much time focusing on the negatives.
However that’s one of the few advantages. More often than not WTF fails to settle into a comfortable rhythm, its meandering plot stringing together a series of skits without having much of a unifier to hold it all together. Fey is meant to be that element but the film spends so much time trying to address all of these societal issues she gets lost in the (Taliban) shuffle. Additionally, strange casting choices distract — the aforementioned Molina as a high-profile politician actually works fairly well once you get used to seeing the man in this setting and the Connecticut-born Christopher Abbott as Fahim, a friendly local Barker manages to bond with quickly. There are other questionable strategies that attempt to pull the focus back to Barker, though I’m unsure if forcing a potential romantic interest in the form of Martin Freeman’s Scottish reporter Iain MacKelpie was the best way to do it.
All in all, you could endure worse missions than Fey sticking out like a sore thumb in a film that has a difficult time finding its identity. There is quite a lot wrong with the production, there’s no denying it. The film has something to say but it’s such a shame it can’t express itself as clearly as it needs to.
Recommendation: Though Whiskey Tango Foxtrot never devolves into a SNAFU, it should still provide a more potent watch than what results given its ability to put us right there in the moment but for what it’s worth, Tina Fey makes up for a lot even though she’s out of her element here. The experience is certainly one you will remember but perhaps not always for the right reasons. Should make for a good rental if nothing else.
Running Time: 112 mins.
Quoted: “Oh, that sucks. That sucks for women.”
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