If you believe Whiskey Tango Foxtrot it’s a miracle we’ve had any coherent reporting out of the war in Afghanistan. It’s a movie singularly focused on a group of correspondents living in a chaotic Kabul from 2003 to 2006. They drink, flirt, party, hook up, jockey for airtime and sources, and then occasionally ride out into danger with American troops. What work they accomplish seems to happen in quick bursts, often almost accidentally, between bouts of fear, discomfort, violence, and gallows humor. It’s a mess. The movie follows suit as a lumpy, misshapen thing, a real quagmire that blunders in with good intentions then bides its time getting more complicated until, suddenly, it withdraws. It is more concerned with a perspective of fish-out-of-water befuddlement than contextualizing its sights and events. It hopes you already know a little about the conflict, and are interested in seeing it from an off-center angle.
Taking the real story of reporter Kim Barker as its inspiration, the movie stars Tina Fey as a woman stuck writing up boring stories in a dull office who jumps at the chance to head off to Afghanistan and get her boots on the ground. She thinks it’ll be a fun change of pace, but the longer she stays the more she finds herself addicted to the frenzied and unpredictable lifestyle. She finds it’s much better than her life back home, with a sad desk job and a boring boyfriend (Josh Charles). She’s the fish out of water who discovers she’s wanted to run this sort of terrain all her life and didn’t even know it. There’s an Oprah-ready quality to the cliché self-actualization here, but this story of a middle-aged woman who gets her groove back by succumbing to her inner adrenaline junkie is no Eat Pray Love. It’s sharper, and edgier, just as likely to draw blood as to shout raunchy sarcasm, or stare contemplatively and uncomprehendingly at some aspect of Afghan life, which remains closed off to characters who are theoretically there to make sense of it for the rest of us.
Screenwriter Robert Carlock (a longtime Fey collaborator, from SNL to 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) conceives the piece with a seesawing tone, wobbling between serious-minded comedy and irreverent drama. It’s never more than mildly amusing, and the dread never quite lands either. But they try. There are scenes of tragic drone strikes played for straight-faced horror, a daring night raid undercut by a Harry Nilsson needle drop, and sudden outbursts of ordnance interrupting all sorts of activities. Fey heads out with troops led by a gruff, dryly funny general (Billy Bob Thornton), snarks with a coarse Scottish photographer (Martin Freeman), and makes warm tentative friendship with her interpreter (Christopher Abbott) and cameraman (Nicholas Braun). This is certainly a masculine environment, into which comes an easy rapport with a radiant blonde correspondent (Margot Robbie) who takes her under her wing. Together they make a fine statement about women in the war zone workplace: underestimated, undervalued, and constantly fending off unwelcome advances.
Less a narrative, more a collection of scenes that slowly arrive at a thematically tidy endpoint, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (in a mode closer to their dark true crime comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris than their slick and smooth heist picture Focus) keep up the chaos. It’s a good way of keeping us disoriented, and then, minutes from the end, a shock to realize its become normalized in a cut back to a tranquil homeland. (That’s a pale echo of a far superior similar moment in The Hurt Locker.) They don’t go for long takes or coherent spatial geography. In fact, there’s little interest here in sketching out the geography or geopolitical facts at all. Put that with the loose structure and you get a movie that’s interested in reporters and war, but fuzzy with the specifics. And it’s this fuzziness, matched with the wobbly tone and wheel-spinning story, that ultimately sinks the film despite Fey having what is perhaps her most fitting non-TV role to date.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot treats its setting with casual disregard for understanding, coding its production design as Other, often scary. Every foreign element is shot to be as exotic, miserable, or mystifying as possible. It can’t decide whether Fey’s headscarf is a source of amusement, cultural appropriation, or social commentary. (Worse still is a sequence in which she goes undercover in full local garb, shown in billowing supermodel slow-mo while westerners smirk.) It casts several white actors to play major Afghani roles, and uses cross-cultural misunderstandings as cutesy punchlines, like when an elderly, maybe senile, villager sees an African American soldier and says, “the Russians are black now!” Maybe you could pull this off as metatextual commentary about the confusion Fey feels, but when you’re making a movie about a journalist, an aura of informal insensitivity in portraying this country is disappointing. It’s a movie that’s too fascinating in its setup to be this thin, hesitant, and unfocused in implementation.