What would happen if 30 ROCK’S Liz Lemon left her TV studio job and went to Afghanistan to cover the war?
Check out WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (2016) and you’ll have the answer. Well, sort of.
Tina Fey, who played Liz Lemon for 7 seasons on the television show 30 ROCK, and stars in WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (2016) isn’t playing Lemon here, but she might as well be. The similarities between Lemon and reporter Kim Baker, who Fey plays in this movie, are many. They both have smart-alecky senses of humor, are awkward around men, and are energetic and ambitious. The one big difference is Lemon is much funnier.
Not that movies about wars should be funny. After all, war is no laughing matter. Yet, when done right, black comedies about war— M*A*S*H (1972), GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (1987)— can be classics. When done wrong, they can be embarrassingly awful. WHISKEY TANGO FOXTRAT falls somewhere in between. It’s not bad. In fact, at times it’s pretty darn good, but on the whole, it just lacks the teeth that a black comedy about the war in Afghanistan needs to be successful.
It’s all very light and peripheral.
It’s 2004, and reporter Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is sent to Afghanistan to cover the war there because the network she works for is scrambling to find enough reporters to provide coverage of the multiple wars. Baker agrees to go even though she has no foreign correspondent experience. She’s as green as a cucumber.
Her contact there Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) quickly shows her the ropes and introduces her to all the folks she needs to know, like the man leading her security detail, Nic (Stephen Peacocke), fellow reporters Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), the leader of the Marine unit she’s covering, General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) and the local Afghan leader, Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina).
At first, Kim is overwhelmed and doubts she can last there very long, but as it turns out, she shows that she has what it takes to get the job done, like running alongside Marines during a fierce fire fight and capturing it all on film. She quickly gains the respect of her fellow journalists and becomes something of a name back home.
Fellow reporter Tanya Vanderpoel shows Kim the wild times of the night life, something that at first she resists, but eventually she lets down her guard and accepts the lifestyle there, even becoming romantically involved with Iaian MacKelpie.
In short, Kim becomes addicted to the high octane life of a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, until she realizes that this lifestyle as much as it provides her with a constant rush isn’t normal, and is not something she wants to do for the rest of her life.
WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT attempts to show the horrors of war through the eyes of an out-of-place reporter who brings her snarky humor along with her to Afghanistan. The problem is neither the horror nor the humor rise above standard fare, making this movie while entertaining nonetheless a bit underwhelming.
Tina Fey can be hilariously funny. She’s not here, although her Kim Baker is a likable enough character. At first the humor in the movie stems from Kim’s being so green and inexperienced. Later it’s watching her make full use of her gumption. But the film never takes these moments far enough.
When Kim finally decides to go all in with the night life, for example, the film never shows things as bawdy as they’re supposed to be. We witness Kim and her friends binge drinking and talking about wild sex, but we never see it. We see Kim vomit for a couple of seconds the next morning, but we never see her act like someone who really overdid it the night before.
Later in the story, Kim becomes involved romantically with Iain MacKelpie, and although Martin Freeman delivers what may be the best performance in the film as MacKelpie, he and Fey share very little chemistry. Their relationship is supposed to be hot and heavy, yet it’s all so asexual. Part of the problem is that Tina Fey generates as much sexual charisma as a library book on insect mating habits.
As I said, Martin Freeman delivers the best performance in the movie. Freeman, from TV’s SHERLOCK and THE HOBBIT movies, among other things, gives MacKelpie some range at least. At first, he comes off as an absolute cad, the last person you’d expect Kim to fall for, but when he comes to her rescue at one point, we see that he’s a three-dimensional cad with genuine feelings. Once they become involved, he actually treats Kim very well.
Billy Bob Thornton does his thing in a nice performance as General Hollanek. Likewise, Margot Robbie does well as veteran reporter Tanya Vanderpoel, who shows Kim the ropes and encourages her to becomes a savvier reporter.
Christopher Abbott makes his mark as Kim’s contact person Fahim Ahmadzai, and Alfred Molina enjoys some humorous moments as Afghan official Ali Massoud Sadiq, a man who has the hots for Kim and is always trying to find a way to get her to go to bed with him. While some of Molina’s scenes are funny, others are too over the top and come off as phony.
WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT could certainly have benefitted from some sharper writing. The screenplay by Robert Carlock, based on the book “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Kim Barker, comes close to hitting its mark but never quite gets there. While it’s true that for the most part there was an undercurrent of uncomfortableness throughout the story, as a movie about the war in Afghanistan should be, the true horrors of the war were never quite hit upon.
For example, at one point Iain MacKelpie finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he’s kidnapped. At this point, I’m thinking, western journalist captured, this is not going to end well, but it does, as Iain is rescued without suffering nary a scratch.
The humor never totally works either. Writer Carlock wrote for SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and for 30 ROCK, so you’d expect this one to be quite funny, but it’s not.
Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the same two directors who directed the very funny CRAZY, STUPID LOVE (2011) don’t display the same comic hand here. They do a good job with the sense of place, as I certainly felt transported to Afghanistan, but for some reason, the horrors of war never come to light. I expected this tale to be more disturbing.
Likewise, with Carlock writing the screenplay, Ficarra and Requa at the helm, and Tina Fey in the lead, I expected this one to be funnier than it was.
WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT generates some sympathy for the soldiers fighting in this Afghan war, as well as some for the reporters covering it. However, one thing that is missing is a sense of the Afghan people. The main Afghans we get to know are almost caricatures.
The film could have used a heavier dose of realism.
The film’s title, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, refers to the letters WTF, and while I’m sure there will be some viewers who after seeing this movie will be asking just that, I think the better question after watching this movie is Where’s The Ferocity? War is ferocious, and a movie about war should be as well.
While not bad, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is far too tame to succeed as a black comedy about war.