Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

© Paramount Pictures

© Paramount Pictures

Over the past ten to fifteen years, audiences have been subjected to a slew of films focused on the multiple wars in the Middle East. Some of these films, such as The Hurt Locker, have soared, but most of them have proven to be lackluster and forgettable. In addition, save for Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, most of these movies have centered on soldiers and their male perspective during the wartime efforts. Because of this incredible skew, it was a refreshing change of pace to see a female-centric film set in the midst of the War in Afghanistan that didn't necessarily rely on a soldier's point of view. 

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot follows Kim Baker (Tina Fey), a middle-aged copywriting desk jockey, who is thrust into the midst of the war in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The film chronicles a three-year time span during which she becomes accustomed to field duty in and around Kabul. Initially hesitant, she soon finds her stride as one of the more daring journalists who isn't afraid to jump into battle alongside soldiers in order to get the best possible footage. Baker maintains a friendly competition with Tanya (Margot Robbie) as well as a possible affection for a Scottish photographer named Iain (Martin Freeman). As a slew of military forces are re-stationed in Iraq, Kim and her colleagues find it increasingly difficult to find stories worthy of airtime back in the United States. 

When I first saw the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot trailers, I was certain that I would be seeing a more light-hearted approach to the war on terror. Some films in recent memory have opted for all-out comedy with less-than-stellar results, so I was a tad bit apprehensive about the possibility of this film going down that route. It sets a very different tone early, however, vying for a more dramatic approach that you wouldn't quite get from the early previews. Now that's not to say that this film is devoid of humor, and the attention to dramatic detail actually helps punch up some of the jokes that do flow steadily, if not as consistently as you might imagine. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa manage this balancing act well, taking a step in the right direction after their last film - 2015's Focus - seemed to miss the mark. 

The film revolves around Tina Fey's character and, to a certain extent, the movie lives and dies on her ability to delve into the dramatic. To this point, I can't remember ever seeing Fey perform in a dramatic role nor have I ever heard her use the extensive profanity that she utters throughout the course of the film. Suffice to say it came as a bit of a shock. Although the film doesn't necessarily ask much of her in the dramatic sense, she still manages to hold quite a presence from start to finish. While her supporting cast mostly outperforms her, I think most of that stems from the reality that they are playing more unique characters. The essence of Fey's Baker is one that we have seen time and again: she's stuck in an office job and feels as though her life is stagnant so she decides to take a plunge into something extreme that could be construed as an adventure. Think Walter Mitty using war as a backdrop to find meaning and spirit in life. That's Fey's character in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The film's two standouts are Margot Robbie and Martin Freeman, both of whom are given tastier roles in which they can actually sink their teeth. Robbie plays the star female journalist who has already made a name for herself in Kabul, but she too has started to feel the effects the Iraq War has wrought on her ability to produce newsworthy content. Her self-confidence plays wonderfully opposite Fey's early apprehension, and the two form an unlikely bond and strong chemistry from the film's opening moments. Freeman plays the aforementioned Scottish photographer (named Iain) who starts the film as a lewd and lovable playboy working his way through the westernized women of Kabul. As time progresses, we watch as he and Fey begin to develop a stronger chemistry and relationship that in any other film might feel forced and contrived but works her because the two have an incredible repartee. A few other recognizable faces pop up from time to time. Billy Bob Thornton plays a Marine corporal who slowly comes around on Fey's ability as a reporter and investigative journalist. He plays a fine character, albeit one rife with Southern and militaristic stereotype. Alfred Molina also makes a supporting appearance as the newly-elected Attorney General of Iraq in one of the more miscast roles I've seen in some time. Rather than portraying a powerful and confident politician, we merely watch him as he goofily pines over Kim Baker in the hopes of garnering her affection. 

What keeps this film from being a knockout hit is its relatively predictable storyline and its inability to pack a punch. In the first act, we see Baker as she begins to learn the world of field journalism in the midst of war, and we essentially follow her on that journey. The second act shows her delving into issues you might not normally hear broadcast from a war zone, including an attention the rights and plights of women in the region. I really enjoyed that the film was looking in a different direction, and it seemed as though it was trying to offer a female-centric view on the wars in the Middle East. The final act, however sees that aspect of the narrative unravel in favor of a predictable storyline that blends romance with the wartime effort. Baker's attempts at exploring the travesties against women fall by the wayside as she focuses on her relationship with Iain while still trying to search for something worthy of her station's news broadcast back home. Had the film continued onward with what it sets up in the second act, I think we might have been looking at a groundbreaking film that dared to take a deeper look at some unmentioned aspects of recent history; instead, the final act lacks the punch needed to bring everything home, so I left the film feeling a tad bit underwhelmed as the credits rolled. 

Ultimately, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an above-average war flick that's going to keep you invested. It's hindered by some typical and rote decisions from the story's perspective, but there's enough there for most audiences to enjoy. I can't say that the film quite lives up to its phonetic pun of a title; there weren't any moments where I was truly shocked by the goings-on of the film, but I still find the title to be clever and original. WTF is worth your time, but only if you have the time to spare.