Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: Middling East, by Scott Nye
Tina Fey has been responsible for some of the sharpest, most idiosyncratic TV comedy of the past twenty years, yet her presence on film has come to represent a sort of compromised decency. From Mean Girls to Date Night to Admission to This is Where I Leave You, a Tina Fey character is consistently educated, overqualified, overworked, underappreciated, and pointedly unhip. That persona is better-honed in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, about a news copywriter who impulsively volunteers to cover the war in Afghanistan, than it has been previously, and the central thrust of the story – finding true purpose and calling later in life, the allure and eventual trap of totally dedicating oneself to career – is strong enough to keep an afternoon matinee afloat. But a slow first act, uninspired direction, and a scattershot screenplay never really builds a sense of momentum or conflict beyond what the characters explicitly state to one another.
Adapted from a memoir by Kim Barker, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot opens promisingly in 2006, as a hard-partying Kim (Fey) curses looters, technology, and the sky amidst a bombing. It then cuts back in time to the considerably-tamer 2003, which finds Kim entering a midlife crisis. Opportunity knocks in the form of Afghanistan – the war in Iraq is ramping up, but The Network (never named) still needs someone to pitch in on covering the former site of our enemy. So off she goes – leaving behind an apartment, some plants, and a boyfriend (Josh Charles) – for a three-month commitment in the Middle East.
The film gets bogged down for some time in problems like sex lives, shower arrangements, chapped lips, and sparse bathrooms – you know, all the stuff you really need to address in your Afghanistan film – but picks up a bit of life once Kim gets more in the swing of things, finding sides to herself she either never knew or hadn’t let rip in years. She’s a fierce, dedicated reporter, eager to finally make a name for herself, and Fey plays very well the sensation of being impressed with your own newfound self-confidence. Better yet, she and screenwriter Robert Carlock (who wrote on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock with Fey, and co-created Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with her) aren’t shy about the negative repercussions of this sort of tenacity. Kim is not saddled merely with the typical she’s-TOO-dedicated-to-her-job excuse of a “flaw,” but her commitment makes her genuinely unpleasant and rude to everyone close to her. Refreshingly, the film doesn’t try to apologize for or redeem this behavior, simply accepting it as part of who she is and hoping she can try to work on it.
Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who made such a strong, forceful directorial debut with 2009’s I Love You Phillip Morris, have only depreciated in talent. Though they wrestled at least a handful of excellent-deployed moments of farce from a downright creepy screenplay for Crazy, Stupid, Love., and last year’s Focus had a whiff of tension and sexuality, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is almost bereft of true decisions. War zones carry with them a natural sense of potential danger, and that’s all Ficarra and Requa seem interested in finding in them. Nothing feels truly unfamiliar or foreign, and they don’t even attempt to direct the threat of violence with any active tension. Some of this is due to Carlock’s script, which has all of about three real, honest scenes with actual beats and movements amidst an unending series of narrative markers that never actually tell a story. It’s as though Carlock cobbled his work together from the standout anecdotes from Barker’s book, rather than letting those minor notes add depth and texture to it. When the entire subject of Kim’s first embed becomes “that time I really had to pee but couldn’t,” it might be time to step back and figure out the real story you’re actually telling. Better filmmakers could challenge this through the camerawork and the performance tone, but Ficarra and Requa are too content to simply capture it in a predictably handheld, shot/reverse pattern.
All around, the film is bagged with the sense of something that just barely got away from its creative team. A solid story, dynamic central character, great cast (Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton, and Christopher Abbot round out the supporting team), and a good heart do not necessarily a good movie make, though. There are still the matters of forming all that into a workable piece of drama. We’re used to films taking their audience for granted; Whiskey Tango Foxtrot takes itself for granted.