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Tina Fey stars in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a “based-on-a-true-story” account of journalist Kim Baker who, in 2003, leaves the safety, comfort and boredom of a desk job at a news network for embedded, in-the-field reporting in Afghanistan. She is reliably good in the movie, engaging and charming, playing Baker with enough of a sarcastic edge to keep the audience invested in the emotional journey she undergoes during the course of the film. Though there are strong performances throughout the movie, it’s Fey who carries the action – there are very few scenes she’s not in – and she carries it very well. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a bit of a departure for her. While the media campaign surrounding the movie would have audience expecting something of a farce or a romantic comedy, the movie is neither of these things and, once it figures out its best way forward, I don’t think it wants to be.
The first third of the movie wanders a bit and seems to struggle to find its tone. Initially, I was bothered by this and I didn’t know what the movie was trying to say or be. However, by the time the end credits rolled, I was surprised at how I had re-framed the early parts of the film. Considering the movie in its entirety, I believe the unfocused nature of the early parts of it mirror what the main character was feeling – a loss of direction and a sense of pointlessness. This becomes the major theme of the movie by the end and I think the directors (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) play those emotions out beautifully. If this was their intention, bravo on a job well done.
Ficarra and Requa stage some very impressive scenes both of warfare and of the bacchanal that seems to have been life for these reporters. They also contrast these settings very well. Utilizing a great soundtrack as background, they manage to evoke powerful emotions from the audience and connect the audience with the characters they’ve put on screen. The one nighttime military raid in the movie feels like it could have been part of Zero Dark Thirty and that’s a compliment to their work. Again, I have decided the uneven nature of the film was a choice on their part and, if that was the case, they’ve put together a very solid movie.
Fey is well supported by terrific actors in other roles in the film. Martin Freeman manages to look dashing – not his usual trick – in a role I’ve seen described all too simply as the love interest for Fey’s Baker. While, yes, their liaison is part of the plot of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, there is a lot more to his part than that. Roguish and brash but somehow sympathetic, Freeman gives photojournalist Iain MacKelpie real life and depth. Likewise, Billy Bob Thornton does a great job as General Hollanek, a veteran and grizzled career army officer who seems alternately annoyed by and protective towards Baker. The ubiquitous Margot Robbie is on hand as one of the only other woman reporters in Afghanistan and she and Fey have good chemistry and the relationship between their characters is a high point of the film until it takes an all too predictable (and unfortunate turn) in the third act.
The casting is solid until one considers that the primary Afghan characters are not played by Afghan actors. I love Alfred Molina, and he’s very good in the movie as an Afghan official, but, man, were there no Afghan actors available?
What really works in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is Tina Fey and that’s good because the film is about her journey of understanding who she is and what her place is in the world. The Cinnamon Girl compared the film to The Way, one of our all time favorites, and it’s an apt comparison. Though I think The Way is a better film, the two movies are quite similar in that they feature main characters who, when we meet them, are completely lost and must confront truths about themselves and the lives they are living. Though this is a pretty standard arc, it worked for me here for a number of reasons, not the least of which because it was a woman protagonist completing it.
I also like movies that complete their stories, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot offered two very believable and satisfying codas. I love me some codas.
For a March release – March being a typical dumping ground for weak films second, perhaps, only to February – Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was far above the typical late winter fare.
WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT receives FOUR STATIONARY BIKES out of a possible five.