Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

May 12, 2016
Tina Fey in 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' (2016)
Tina Fey in 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' (2016)

If The Martian can be classified as a comedy in last year’s Golden Globes, I suppose the same applies to Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa strive mightily to keep the tone light in a film in which there is a significant amount of carnage and bloodshed, but it’s never laugh-out-loud material. The good news is that for those who leave their expectations of comedy at the cinema door, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has a lot to offer.

Viewers who lead sheltered lives may not recognise that the title stands for the ever-popular expostulation: “What The Fuck?!” It remains a strange choice, even if the other possibility was The Taliban Shuffle – the title of a memoir by war correspondent, Kim Barker, that provided the basis for the story. Audiences might have expected a Mel Brooks-style musical.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not the first movie to seek comedy in a war zone, which has never been an easy feat. Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) is usually nominated as the pick of the bunch, but if I feel completely indifferent after an Altman movie I always consider it one of his better ones. When it comes to gore-drenched exercises in bad taste such as Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards (2009), it’s hard to laugh at a film that trashes and trivialises the horrors of the Second World War. Lest we forget, indeed.

There is a natural place for comedy in war because black, extreme humour is a relief from tension, but that hybrid genre, the war comedy, is a contradiction-in-terms that finds many different ways of alienating an audience. Try switching from slapstick to tragedy in the blink of an eye and see if viewers go along or walk out. Turn humour into sentimentality or sanctimonious moralising and the pretence of comedy is lost forever.

Ficarra and Requa avoid the worst pitfalls by quarantining most of the jokes into a stream of witty one-liners. When the heroine disguises herself in a burqa, she quips: “It’s so pretty I don’t even want to vote!” As she walks through the compound in this outfit, eyes follow her as if she were the girl from Ipanema.

We experience the conflict in Afghanistan almost exclusively through Tina Fey’s Kim Baker, a first-time war correspondent who accepted the assignment because she was frustrated with the routine nature of her life. Aside from turning Barker into Baker, Robert Carlock’s script has the movie version of Kim doing more reports to camera than writing.

In Kabul the new recruit finds herself in the midst of a loud but close-knit enclave of journos and photographers, who drink too much, talk constantly about sex, and act as if they are high on adrenalin. Yes, I know that sounds like every group of journalists, but these ones have daily exposure to a world of bombs, guns and terrorists.

Kim is inducted into life in ‘the Kabubble’ by Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), the most glamorous war correspondent of all time, who seems to revel in the routine of casual sex, relentless boozing and dangerous reporting. Kim’s main point of contact with the military is the sardonic General Hollanek, played by Billy Bob Thornton. She also meets a cynical Scottish photographer, Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), who specialises in saying sleazy and inappropriate things, but may be the best of a dodgy lot.

The man who would gladly be Kim’s “very special friend” is the Afghan Attorney General, Sadiq, who knows everything that goes on in the country but puts a high price on his information. Sadiq is played by Alfred Molina, in a performance both comical and slightly menacing. It is, however, disappointing that in this day and age the only true Afghans in this film are the extras. Even Kim’s taciturn guide and fixer, Fahim, is played by Christopher Abbott, best known for the TV series, Girls.

The casting is a symptom of the larger strategy employed by the filmmakers: keep the focus on Kim and don’t get too caught up in the issues. This means we experience the war vicariously through the protagonist’s growing involvement in this chaotic, violent world. Feeling the rush of danger, Kim takes more and more risks, until Fahim – and reality – intervene.

If there is a political message in this film it arrives as a rebuke to the fickle interests of the American media and the viewing public, who quickly tire of news from Afghanistan, even though the situation remains desperate. This is the issue for which Kim would momentarily take up a crusade, but for most of the time she is thinking about her “mildly depressive” boyfriend back home, a developing love interest in Kabul, and the need to find ever more sensational stories.

Although we are never allowed to ignore the conflict that lurks outside the journalists’ compound, the emphasis is on Kim’s self-actualisation, and perhaps on Tina Fey’s successful adaptation to a different kind of role. The war with the Taliban may rage on senselessly, but out of this cauldron one woman has forged a new sense of identity. That’s the crux of the story, which may be a let-down for those with a serious interest in Afghanistan, but it works as a dramatic motif. There’s a real charm to this tale which puts the personal before the political but doesn’t draw cheap laughs from human tragedy.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa,
Written by Robert Carlock, after a book by Kim Barker
Starring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Christopher Abbott, Alfred Molina USA, rated MA 15+, 112 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 14th May, 2016.

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