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Non-Review Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

It can be difficult to balance tone when setting a comedy inside a warzone.

That difficulty only increases when setting that comedy in the aftermath of the United States invasion of Afghanistan. America’s military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan remains a defining moment in twenty-first century history; although the Obama administration might have worked hard to reduce commitment to the region, the conflicts remain divisive and controversial. As such, setting a comedy drama against the backdrop of the Afghan conflict is a dicey proposition.

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot struggles to pitch itself at the right tone, unsure whether it is an absurdist comedy about the excesses of modern war or a character study of what it must be like to live in such an environment or whether it is a more mature reflection on life during wartime. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot tries to have the best of all possible world, which leaves the film bouncing between extremes. There are moments of irreverent irony followed by earnest sincerity. The movie alternates between bitter cynicism and saccharine optimism.

The result is a movie that feels uneven and unfocused, tonally lost and wildly variable. And not in a way that reflects the conflict unfolding in the background.

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot works best as a showcase for Tina Fey. Fey is one of the best comedic actors to emerge over the past decade, with an acerbic wit and great sense of timing. Fey has proven herself a fantastic performer, whether through her impressions on Saturday Night Live, her character work on Thirty Rock, or even her headlining roles in comedies like Baby Mamma or Sisters. However, Tango Whiskey Foxtrot represents something of a career shift for Fey, affording the actor a high-profile role in comedy drama with serious subject matter.

This is an expected beat in the career of any talented comedic performer, with Fey following in the footsteps of performers like Jim Carrey (The Truman Show, The Majestic) or Will Ferrell (Stranger than Fiction, Everything Must Go) or Steve Carrell (Foxcatcher, The Big Short). This transition has become expected, which raises some interesting issues about pop culture treats comic acting. In many respects, it is an undervalued talent, less likely to garner the critical and awards attention traditionally lavished upon dramatic performances.

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Fey does good work in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, demonstrating that her timing and expressiveness are just as suited to a drama as to comedy. Playing unlikely war reporter Kim Barker in a film adapted from the real-life reporter’s memoirs, Fey carries large stretches of the film singlehandedly. Fey handles Barker’s transition from naive new arrival to experienced veteran with deft skill, helping to anchor the character in the face of a script prone to bolt in random (and occasionally arbitrary) directions from scene to scene.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is adapted by Robert Carlock from Kim Barker’s The Taliban Shuffle, covering the reporter’s experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot streamlines the memoir dramatically, completely eschewing Pakistan and porting over aspects of that narrative into Barker’s time in Afghanistan. Barker is no longer romantically pursued by a former Prime Minister of Pakistan, but is instead subject to awkward advances from the Afghani Attorney General.

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Barker’s story suffers from this attempt to restructure it into a far more conventional narrative. Instead of a series of isolated vignettes, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot strains to tie all of its threads together. This leads to some tonal whiplash, most notable when the fictitious Ali Massoud Sadiq (somewhat questionably cast as Italian-Spanish British-American actor Alfred Molina) finds himself drawn into a tense high-stakes rescue mission at the climax of the film. Sadiq is presented as a joke throughout the film, making his inclusion at the climax rather awkward.

This problem recurs throughout the film. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does good in its smaller moments, whether it is Barker accidentally losing her seed money from her publisher or covering some of the smaller odder “day in the life” reporting from the new Afghanistan. However, stories about sabotage at a local well and the attempts to bring modern education to the region get lost in more heavy-handed narratives about the central reporters. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot fixates upon the risks taken by these reporters in pursuit of a good story or an adrenaline rush.

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Early in the film, Barker explains what motivated her to volunteer for the risky assignment, abandoning copy-writing for mortar-dodging. Barker explains that was tired of a vacuous and meaningless middle-class existence in the big city, yearning to actually go somewhere instead of travelling in place. “That is the most American white lady story I have ever heard,” reflects one of Barker’s companions. It is a witty deflection, but it hints at an underlying issue with the film.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is more interested in the middle-class anxieties of its white characters than in anything involving actual Afghans. The local characters are rendered in generic and one-dimensional terms. Sadiq is a lecherous eccentric, with the film vaguely hinting that he might not be the best ally to the United States or his own constituents. Fahim Ahmadzai starts a family over the course of the film, but serves primarily as a confidante to Barker. When Barker takes a risk and puts herself and Fahim at risk, he responds by worrying about her.

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To be fair, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is Kim Barker’s story. It makes sense the narrative would focus on her. This is not a film about the Afghanistan War or the larger War on Terror. However, the film reduces an entire country in turmoil to a crucible through which an American character might undergo a spiritual epiphany. This accounts for some of the unevenness of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, as it seems to unfold in a world that exists solely for Barker’s self-actualisation. As such, it does not feel like a real place, being whatever Barker needs from moment to moment.

There is an uncomfortable assertion at the heart of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, one that assumes the audience can only care about a foreign situation through white characters. The plot and character arcs of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot are not the stories or the nation that the reporters are covering, but the reporters themselves. The horrors unfolding in Afghanistan are merely a vehicle for self-actualisation and self-discovery. While Whiskey Tango Foxtrot nods towards this awkward reality, it never delves deeper.

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The climax of the story hinges on a foreign reporter being placed in danger, forcing Barker to rally herself and demonstrate just how much she has grown. The big moment of enlightenment at the heart of the film is about the risks that the reporters take in service of their own careers or their own excitement, but without any real consideration of how that relates to the people living in the country. Even when another character calls Barker out for harm she has caused, it is harm caused to a white American character.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is disjointed and uneven, perhaps stemming from its own lack of self-awareness.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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2 Responses

  1. I think one of the best war comedies I have seen was Three Kings, directed by David O Russell. It also was set in the Middle East and had just the right balance to it.

    • That’s a massively underrated film. I seem to remember David O. Russell sort of disappearing for a while after that, possibly around I Heart Huckabees.

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