Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not what you’d expect from a movie starring Tina Fey, written by Fey’s 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt writing partner Robert Carlock, produced by Fey and SNL boss Lorne Michaels, and featuring Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton and Josh Charles.
Then again: what do you expect from a movie with those credits?
The answer to that question might explain the movie’s piddling box office numbers this weekend. The marketing, from the mystifying title to the underwhelming trailers, suggested a broad, silly comedy about a hapless journalist’s adventures overseas. But the actual movie is a lightly comedic drama about Americans embedded among soldiers amid a dangerous conflict that no one, not even the people fighting it, really understands. That’s not an easy sell, even with someone as theoretically bankable as Fey in the lead role.
It’s not a perfect movie by any means. The direction by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus, Crazy Stupid Love) is aggressively generic. Carlock’s screenplay occasionally tips too far into one end of the comedy-drama balance, and a few characters abruptly change personalities without warning midway through. The story meanders, mixing professional competition, romantic tribulation and political conflict in ways that feel strained. The casting of Connecticut-born Abbott and the British thespian Alfred Molina as the two most prominent Afghan characters smacks of a particular toxic race-blindness that really ought to be exterminated (and that Fey, often dinged for racial stereotypes in her work, ought to have nixed, but has instead defended with dubious authority).
And yet, there’s something admirable and refreshing about a mid-budget Hollywood “comedy” that has more on its mind than broad slapstick and snide pop culture references. The movie isn’t political so much as it is personal. Fey’s Kim Baker is a workaday TV journalist who spends her weeks hustling copy for “attractive people to read on camera.” (Her home network is never identified; her real-life counterpart Kim Barker covered the war for the Chicago Tribune.) When the opportunity comes for her to live in Kabul to cover the war as an on-camera personality, Kim jumps, leaving behind her dolt of a boyfriend (Charles) and falling in with a group of fellow journalists including the superstar Tanya Vanderpoel (Robbie) and roguish Iain (Freeman). As she gets acquainted with this unfamiliar world, one in which gunshots are as common as gusts of wind and the consequences of battle quickly start to seem routine, Kim discovers talents and interests she previously hadn’t considered.
Fey gives a fine dramatic performance here, largely eschewing the antics for which she’s revered and imbuing Kim with an appealing resolve and a believable hesitance about her new surroundings. The character proves as natural a fit for Fey’s sensibility as New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani suggested in a review of the Barker’s book that inspired Fey to commission the screen adaptation. There are moments when the character seems headed for the sort of third-act self-reflective epiphany that’s a hallmark of movies about women chasing their professional aspirations, but the movie never aspires to much more than following and making sense of Kim’s experiences — her discomfort with the cutthroat realities of war reporting, her surprise at the compelling blend of lifestyles in the midst of a conflict zone, her reluctance to let go of the humdrum life from which she wants to escape. Even when her storytelling fails to impress the money-hungry network executives back home, prompting a realization that the American public has “moved on” from the war in Afghanistan as it continues to unfold in 2005 and 2006, Kim’s actions appear consistent with the pragmatic reality of a woman in her position, not the fantasy of an underappreciated journalist getting her comeuppance. The same goes for the characterization of Tanya, a skinny blonde whose conventional good looks give her an edge over Kim among their professional gatekeepers. The movie characterizes their relationship as largely genial and reluctantly competitive, never petty.
The story spans three years, with frequent cuts to establish the passing of months. It probably could have used a tighter focus or more room to breathe. A late-breaking romance in the movie’s second half seems shoehorned in and underdeveloped, especially given the unappealing if amusing characterization of the male suitor in his earlier appearances. Kim’s friendship with her guard Fahim (Abbott) is touching and largely free of stereotypes (though once again, Abbott’s casting undermines the impact of his performance as an Afghan man), but much of it seems to develop offscreen, without enough detail presented onscreen to fill in the gaps. The movie’s penultimate scene wraps up some thorny ethical questions a bit too neatly, even as it serves as a nice callback to a critical moment in the first act.
It feels disingeunous to dismiss Whiskey Tango Foxtrot for its messy tangle of ideas and ambitions when the idea of a Hollywood movie engaging with any of those ideas and ambitions feels foreign. There’s a lot to appreciate about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Even when it doesn’t “come together” as a fully formed experience, it offers what’s fairly rare in a moviegoing landscape increasingly defined by easily digestible formulas: earnest, thoughtfully rendered surprise.