Saturday, March 05, 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot



The word “resources” gets used several times in the new Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. News producer Kim Baker (Tina Fey) winds up as a war correspondent in 2003 Afghanistan because her network’s resources are stretched due to the beginnings of the Iraq War. Later, a network president (Cherry Jones) ponders using fewer resources in Afghanistan because in the three years Baker has been there the story has become less vital to Americans. When thinking about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which Fey produced along with Lorne Michaels, one might regard it as a case of misspent resources. What could have been a darkly funny film about what war reporting does to people is instead a film in which the U.S. Military, other reporters, and the entire nation of Afghanistan serve as the supporting cast in the story of Kim Baker acquiring a backbone. Baker - the film is based on a nonfiction book by journalist Kim Barker - has almost no field experience when she arrives in Afghanistan and is dependent on her local guide Fahim, played by the very non-Afghan actor Christopher Abbott. Kim proves her courage and impresses a general (Billy Bob Thornton) by getting close-up footage of a firefight, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t a movie about military strategy.

The action of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot covers 2003 to 2006, years when Afghanistan receded from the American consciousness as the Iraq War increased in intensity. Kim gets some traction by reporting on gender issues, but Ficarra and Requa cut away from a scene in which a group of Afghan women get to meet Kim and express their concerns. Instead we get more of the frat house life at the journalists’ base, where Kim’s friends Tanya (Margot Robbie) and Ian (Martin Freeman) encourage her to get over her unfaithful stateside boyfriend (Josh Charles). There is also an Afghan politician (Alfred Molina) who it turns out is around only for plot purposes, since neither Kim nor anyone else seems that interested in what kind of country Afghanistan is becoming. Instead there’s a late twist - involving Kate getting Thornton’s general to commit men to a dangerous mission - that offers Kate an opportunity to advance her career; she doesn’t hesitate to seize her chance, though weirdly Robbie’s Tanya is judged for doing exactly the same thing. Tina Fey is mostly up to the role of Kim, though I never bought the idea that Kim was in danger of thinking the extremes of war zone life were “normal”. Whomever made the choice to make Whiskey Tango Foxtrot about Kim’s self-actualization did so at the expense of dramatizing the lived experience of soldiers and journalists on the ground. The result is a film that looks big and feels small, one that traded Fey’s comic voice for jokes about Muslim women covering themselves. WTF indeed.

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