First and foremost, if you saw the trailers and were looking forward to a lighthearted, fish-out-of-water comedy, I’m sorry to say that the film’s marketing team were about as off-point tonally as they could be. Despite the playful title and Tina Fey’s staring role, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not some hilarious adventure in the Middle East with quit-witted characters and hilarious cultural mishaps, but rather a surprisingly gentle and ponderous dramedy, light on plot and character but heavy on atmosphere and subtext. There is definitely humour sprinkled throughout the movie, but you’ll be seeing cozy smiles amongst the audience instead of exhaustive laughter when the lights come on in the cinema.
Based on Kim Baker’s account in her book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan and directed by Glen Ficarra and John Requa (the team behind Focus, Bad Santa and I Love You Phillip Morris), Whiskey Tango Foxtrot follows Baker (Fey) through her time as a war correspondent in the Middle East and subsequent return to America. Dissatisfied with her journalistic career back home, Baker volunteers for a posting in Afghanistan and quickly becomes intoxicated by the job, progressively taking bigger risks to get stories and eventually battling her network to protect her posting as America loses interest in stories about the war.
Now, while I do think WTF‘s (you’re welcome, for those who didn’t pick up on the joke there initially) comedic bent has been extremely exaggerated, it’s not at all without a sense of humour. Margot Robbie gets some great lines in as the slightly more seasoned and utterly Australian Tanya, but it’s Martin Freeman’s offensive and lecherous Scotsman Ian MacKelpie who gets the best material and livens things up whenever he’s on screen. Fey largely plays the straight-woman and is probably a little blander a personality in this regard, but her pitch-perfect comedic timing and calm, unintentional sarcasm ensure she drums up laughs even if she isn’t as charismatic as some of her co-stars.
The problem with the comedy in this movie (aside from how much of it was in the trailer (I swear that’s the last time I’ll bringing up the marketing in this review)), is that it doesn’t always gel with the much more grounded reality the majority of the film finds itself in. As it begins the humour used feels typical for a movie starting Tina Fey, but as soon as the story gets going it starts feeling out of place, and earlier jokes retrospectively reveal WTF to be a film not entirely confident in its creative direction. Alred Molina’s Afghan Attorney General, for example, is a perfectly enjoyable caricature when we first meet him, but as we settle into the meat of the movie he only manages to distract from the subtler American introspection that’s really at the heart of the film.
And that’s where WTF really shines, giving its audience a tender consolation to its reduced supply of bombastic comedy. Writer Robert Carlock’s script is extremely reverential of Baker and the world she thrust herself into. Some cheap gags aside, WTF is meticulous in never taking a side on issues or pointing the finger, only doing its best to represent the feelings of the journalists, soldiers and locals all tangled up in the same situation. The lack of anger and political motivation is refreshingly calming. At face value that sounds like the movie is a little toothless, and those looking for a more impassioned perspective could do better elsewhere, but WTF strives to uphold the objective principles of the journalistic institution, allowing it to reject being labelled as “safe” and instead being simply respectful. Soldiers aren’t treated like meatheads, the camera courteously cuts away to avoid showing woman wearing burkas as they reveal their faces, and, in what is one of the film’s most quietly beautiful moments between Baker and her “fixer” Fahim (Christopher Abbott), the filmmakers resist Americanizing the exchange and allowing what is between them to transcend the cultural boundaries the characters maintain.
WTF is abound in strong yet restrained performances from its cast. Robbie and Freeman (especially Freeman) are crude and charming all at once, spicing up the movie and quickly establishing the Kabul’s westerner sub-culture. Abbot’s Fahim is arguably the heart of the movie, boasting a gentle disposition and dutifully following and protecting Baker, even from herself as he uncovers the central conflict she has kept hidden, both from the audience and herself. Fey does come off as a comparatively vanilla personality when compared to the rest of the cast, but despite being a bit of a vehicle for the audience, she is still endearing enough that we are happy to follow her for the film’s duration.
Even if you’re unbothered by it not being the comedy it purports itself to be (sorry, that really was the last time), some will still find it to be a little too placid. But Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t a movie that aims to excite, it’s a reflective and unexpectedly life-affirming experience that lets you take from it what you want, and ensures you leave with a warm smile no matter what that may be.
That, and it totally nails its final shot and cuts to the credits at the perfect moment, which to this reviewer is pretty much the most important thing for any movie to do.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10