Tina Fey, best known for developing absurdest sitcoms like 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is now playing Kim Baker, a network news producer in New York who relocates to Afghanistan to embed herself with the troops. From the beginning, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot raises a question about its success. Can Fey’s humor and the reality of the war in the Middle East combine to form a compelling story?
Absolutely, for about the first thirty minutes…
The early moments, while perhaps not mind blowing, certainly work. Kim starts off as a strong protagonist. She decides to move to Afghanistan because she’s bored with her life. In doing so, she makes a motivated attempt to do a better and better job as a war correspondent. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa give these moments a driving energy, moving us forward in a clearly defined and empowering direction. We want, as an audience, to want to see where Kim’s success takes her.
And Fey’s humor, for these early moments, shines through. Kim has a snarky repartee with everyone she meets that makes her likable, and it’s that same affable candor that helps to push through boilerplate plot conversation. Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) is endlessly charming as a neurotically polite Afghan guide. Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), as the war correspondent veteran, gives us access to the mundane craziness of partying in Afghanistan as a woman. Billy Bob Thornton gives a delightfully sane performance as General Hollanek, offering some pithy USMC based barbs. By the time Iain MacKelpie (a very Scottish Martin Freeman) shows up as a flirty party buddy, it just feels like comedic gravy on a well formed cast.
And then the first thirty minutes end…
What happens after that? The film is probably less sure of that than anyone else. The story gets incredibly indecisive, as multiple plot threads come and go, and there’s no certainty towards their resolution. Kim becomes obsessed with finding bigger war stories in Afghanistan to help her career, but she seems more obsessed with mentioning her goals than making a concrete choice and following through with them. She’ll try going to a certain location for a story, fall short, and simply come back to the reporter’s hotel. She’ll argue with someone sometimes, but there can never be a concrete break with another character, just a few scenes apart.
And the dialogue cares too much about long, knowledge driven sentences concerning news programming or Afghan culture – it’s as if the screenwriter was desperately proving to us that he knows what he’s talking about. In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, it’s hard to feel like concrete changes happen or are strongly desired by anyone.
Stylistically, there are black screens that announce the year, establishing Kim’s relationship to the war in Aghanistan. “2003”, “2004”, “2005”. Aside from literally marking space between scenes, it’s difficult to tell the years apart, as her life in Afghanistan gets monotonous and repetitive. It’s the kind of thing that makes sense for real life (the movie is based on the actual Kim Barker’s – like Kim Baker with an ‘r’ – memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan”), but in a fictional film seems insufferable and too long.
Speaking of insufferable, the much appreciated humor, found early on, falls off a cliff. In the audience I saw the film with, there was some desperate laughter when Kim busted out a swear word, or when a cartoonish Alfred Molina showed up as Afghan politician Ali Massoud Sadiq, but there was an early point where the mood got dour for the sake of dour and refused to let up. It’s an understandable move for a film where real war is involved, but avoiding punchlines doesn’t mean a movie also has to lose its sense of liveliness.
By the time Kim and Iain end up in a romantic fling, what was a great opportunity to explore human warmth – or cynicism – instead follows the same noncommittal and meandering plot flow as everything else. The actual story of Kim Ba(r)ker is inspirational. That a woman could enter the male dominated world of Afghanistan, both in terms of the Islamist society and the US military, and find her own path is great. Its just more than a little disappointing that this film treats the actual path with less regard.