Tina Fey headlines Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a seriocomic look at a female reporter in Afganistan, directed by Glen Ficarra and John Requa and co-starring Margot Robbie. It has all the promise of a fresh narrative on a difficult topic but, in reality, the film has a predictable thrust on a difficult subject.
In its review of journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, The New York Times remarked that the author “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character.” So it should come as no shock that Fey herself was the one to don the headscarf of a fortysomething adrenaline junkie who puts her life on the line as a war correspondent.
It does seem in recent years that Hollywood has developed a new sub-genre for these type of wartime comedies. See if this sounds familiar to you: Hapless non-combatants find themselves in the worst part of Afghanistan in the midst of a war and among the bombs/bullets the non-combatant strives to find purpose. If someone guessed either Whiskey Tango Foxtrot or Rock The Kasbah, he or she were right. In fact, the similarities between these two films are plentiful.
There’s a nerve-racking flight to Kabul (just like Rock The Kasbah); Fey’s character is greeted by a hunky security personnel, the terrible hotel, and, of course, the Westerners night club which looks like a psychedelic nightmare. Even in the face of all these similarities, it can be decisively stated that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is far superior to Rock The Kasbah (that’s not saying much).
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was written by longtime Fey collaborator Robert Carlock (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). Tina Fey benefited from this as the film is without question written with her type of comedy pathos in mind. However, having Carlock write the screenplay is a bit of a Catch-22. While it’s always great to write with a certain actor or actress in mind, Carlock’s experience is in comedic writing, and it shows on screen. The dramatic scenes felt too campy and outmatched by the whimsy.
Are we to believe that Kim Baker was super serious about getting help from the Afghani Attorney General (Alfred Molina) and blackmailed him using a video depicting him dancing that she took on her iPhone? Am I to just accept that Kim can clear a workout room because she gives a concerned look to a general? I’m not saying that this film should have been all serious, but it is the responsibility of the writer to develop characters in such a way that elicit some credibility. In a movie where someone is struggling to adjust while living in a war-torn region of the world, I should have at least felt sorry for her. In this case, I felt nothing towards Fey’s character. In fact, Carlock’s characters in the film are not written like typical “real people” but are more stereotypical roles that are commonly found in this type of film.
We veer off course with the career-minded woman who’s bored and wants a change (Fey). Then we mix in the bad boy whom the girl doesn’t want to date but ends up dating (Martin Freeman). Then there’s the strange authoritative figure that is tough but has some compassion (Billy Bob Thorton). Finally to round off the roles, we get the über beautiful girl who is also career minded and double-crosses the lead (Margot Robbie). Carlock seemingly penned this movie with a Mad-Lib mentality, focusing on too much dramedy.
Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa play it safe and develop a film that has minimal complex shots and a plethora of tight shots focusing on the interactions of the characters. Rarely did we see them throw in wide lenses which could have conveyed better the depravity of the circumstances that they were facing in the Afghanistan.
Even though Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has a tremendous cast and is based on relevant subject matter, it falls below anything that should be considered acceptable. Wait a second … an excellent cast … great subject matter .. and it falls below expectations … maybe Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has more in common with Rock The Kasbah than we realized.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Production companies: Broadway Video, Little Stranger
Cast: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Peacocke, Sheila Vand, Evan Jonigkeit, Fahim Anwar, Josh Charles, Cherry Jones
Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Screenwriter: Robert Carlock, based on the book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker
Producers: Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey, Ian Bryce
Executive producers: Charles Gogolak, Eric Gurian, Sam Grey
Director of Photography: Xavier Grobet
Production Designer: Beth Mickle