There’s a moment towards the end of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and I’m not really giving anything away here, when protagonist and war journalist, Kim Baker (Tina Fey), looks out the window of her taxi as it drives her to the Kabul airport. She sees a young boy, begging on the street, and smiles fondly. The music swells. He was the same boy who scammed her when she first arrived in Afghanistan, a few years earlier. The idea is that we get swept up in Baker’s sentimental moment. The boy was an exciting life experience for her. What the fuck? The streets of a worn-torn, third world city is that boy’s life.
There are other aspects of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot that err toward the offensive. Baker’s two central Afghan professional relationships are played by Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott. Molina’s heritage is Italian/Spanish and Abbott’s is Italian/Portuguese. But they certainly offer enthusiastic caricatures of Middle Eastern men.
There are also the horrific events depicted in the film that are breezed over by filmmakers too enthusiastic to get to the next joke. Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” is the archetypal example of a union between comedy and tragedy. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa appear to be pursuing the same line of thought as Heller, but perhaps they’re not. The film suffers from the most bewildering identity crisis. It’s not funny enough to be a comedy. It’s not biting or insightful enough to be a satire. It’s too insipid and shallow to gain any dramatic traction. And it’s charmless and unentertaining, which covers most other forms of cinema that a film like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot could possibly want to be.
The film follows Baker, a television journalist, after she agrees to take on a short stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan. She heads to Kabul, where the culture shock proves too much for her initially. She’ll overcome that. We know that from the get go, partly because the film opens three years into an assignment that was meant to last three months and partly because the film is maddeningly formulaic and that’s just how these fish out of water stories seem to play out.
The plot is disjointed and episodic, which can work in a film’s favour but only inhibits Whiskey Tango Foxtrot from achieving any sense of narrative tension or character development. There’s nothing to any of it. You won’t care about what’s happening on screen because it’s all so chaotically and confusingly conveyed. You won’t care about the characters because they’re paper thin and repellent. So what’s left to care about? Not much, if anything at all.
It might not be the responsibility of a film to offer insight into its subject but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot establishes itself as a film that will, and then doesn’t.
Here’s a recent quote from Fey: “The most challenging thing, personally, was trying to pretend we were there [in Afghanistan]. To really try to imagine the feeling of danger. Because we were in New Mexico, we are in the United States.”
And here’s one from co-star, Margot Robbie: “It is difficult, having no exposure to what it would be like to be a war correspondent. I did like a lot of reading about things that we weren’t actually talking about in the script necessarily, but you know, the things that would happen to reporters over there, just so that I could recognize the stakes that we would technically be in and try and bring that fear to a scene … So I just tried to read about it, so I could kind of get a grasp of the stakes. … But yeah, definitely difficult not actually being there and not actually feeling the imminent danger the way they would have been.”
If that doesn’t sum it up nicely, maybe nothing will. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot feels like a movie about Afghanistan that was filmed in America, with Americans playing Afghans, made by a whole lot of people who didn’t have any grasp on the material whatsoever.
If a central character so self-centred that her principle concerns while living in Kabul during the war in Afghanistan are professional success, men and an active night life is of interest then perhaps Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the film for you. For anyone else, best steer clear.