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'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' Is a Very Western Guide to Afghanistan

Out on Blu-Ray, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot brings a few laughs and some mixed messages.


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Director: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
Cast: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Christopher Abbott, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton
Studio: Paramount
Blu-ray: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
US Release Date: 2016-06-28

The life of a war correspondent comes with some funny old contradictions. The worst the situation they walk into, the better it is professionally. One of the hardest things to watch on evening news is a journalist dashing around in a firefight unable to hide their excitement. It’s understandable of course, adrenaline levels must be through the roof.

The topic comes up in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a comedy-drama based on embedded Afghanistan correspondent Kim Barker’s memoir. Scraping by on the strength of performances, it’s a film that manages to be both progressive and narrow depending on the direction it’s facing at the time.

Luckily for everyone involved, the progressive side dominates for large parts. How could it not when relating the ultimately triumphant story of a female journalist in a profession of far too few. Tina Fey plays Kim Baker (slightly renamed), a bored news writer stuck producing copy for dullards. With the Iraq War taking up more airtime, already thin resources are stretched to breaking point. Unable to hire any new staff, her network rounds up the backroom team and asks if anyone wants to go to Afghanistan to cover the conflict. Kim signs up straight away, heading off without even taking time to tell her partner in person.

The first half of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot majors more on comedy than drama. Kim is a fairly hapless novice. She turns up with a bright orange bag easily spotted on the battlefield, shocks the locals by not entirely complying with dress requirements, and accidentally throws a vast number of dollars across the streets of Kabul. She doesn’t remain this way for long, though. Taking up with other correspondents including Margot Robbie’s Tanya Vanderpoel, she gets to grips with the situation, impresses Billy Bob Thornton’s senior military officer, General Hollanek, and Alfred Molina’s Afghan Attorney, General Ali Massoud Sadiq, and is soon running around gathering scoops left, right and center.

By this stage co-director Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s film is doing an OK job. The laughs are slight but it’s amiable enough. Fey is an always engaging figure and she gets decent support from Robbie, Thornton, and Martin Freeman as Scottish photographer and potential love interest Iain MacKelpie.

Determined to hit a little harder, the second half abandons easy comedy for a more serious look at the adrenaline soaked madness of war journalism as they seek out stories no matter the personal cost. There’s even the odd hint at the abandonment Afghanistan faced from a Western World taken by new exotic adventures, though by this stage Kim’s burgeoning relationship with Iain seems to be of even more interest.

Unfortunately, it’s undone by a major failing. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a remarkably myopic film, paying little to no interest in Afghanistan itself. Even as Kim and the military men she meets castigate others for discarding the country, the film is happy to do just that. The journalists live in their little compound and rarely meet anyone outside long enough to notice what’s going on. Just like Kim, it’s a film seduced by explosions, excitement, and scandal.

Given journalism remains the central topic, the failure to pay more attention to Afghanistan is a big problem. At its very worst, the country becomes a punchline for running gags about faeces in the air. Even at its best, the characters getting a look in are predominantly white westerners, aside from the Attorney General and her Afghan fixer Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott), both, incidentally, played by western actors.

An almost holed film is saved by Fey and Freeman. Their odd chemistry, based initially around a series of graphic sexual conversations, drags the focus onto them and away from the more troubling aspects of the half-formed world their characters have been dropped into. It takes a while to get them together, but when they do, it’s perfectly relaxing just watching them semi-bicker while falling in love.

This is also achieved without Kim’s new found romantic life taking over her career. The reason she’s out there remains of paramount importance, even as the film fails to pay much attention to the place she’s in. Her blooming professional life is not something to throw away for the first pretty face.

As the transition from comedy to drama and war to romance plays out, it’s enhanced by a smooth shooting style that keeps everything ticking along. There are no jarring changes of pace, more a gentle blurring of edges. A hip indie soundtrack also blares frequently, blending the likes of Radiohead and The National into the dusty, war torn Afghan backdrop.

For all the positive messages surrounding Fey’s character, much of that good work is undone by the one-dimensional treatment of the country she’s supposed to be covering, and the people in it. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that we’re taking two steps forward only to take one immediately back. Still, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does prove that war journalism need not be the sole preserve of excited men running around in flak jackets.

The extras that come with this Blu-Ray and DVD twin release include featurettes on the making of the film, the real Kim, and the environment in Afghanistan. There are also additional deleted and extended scenes.

5

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