Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is proof that even in Afghanistan, where a bomb could explode while you’re on the toilet, Tina Fey has the time to drink, party and smoke a bong. It really is the life, isn’t it? Hundreds of civilians are dying around her and there she is, living the good life in Kabul. Oh, she takes her job as a journalist very seriously indeed; she goes where the job takes her. But I think she would’ve been much happier reporting in Amsterdam. She could’ve smoked all the bongs she wanted and not have had to worry about dying on the toilet.
This is an odd movie. It treats the war in Afghanistan like Pee Wee’s playhouse. Serious issues are constantly being debated, but our main characters seem more interested in what to wear to the nightclub. And of course, this is an American comedy, so be prepared for ill-placed vagina and penis jokes, and lots of talk about screwing and humping and whatever the kids are calling it these days. Most of the characters seem like sitcom doppelgängers anyway, especially the Marine general played by Billy Bob Thornton, who always delivers lines as if he thinks he’s about to mess them up. For a movie all about wartime journalism, very little actual reporting takes place. What we get instead is an inside scoop to the life of Kim Baker (Fey), who uses Whiskey Tango Foxtrot as a catapult to an interesting and worthwhile life.
Kim’s career is uneventful and dry. She sits at her computer all day and crunches in boring reports about health and safety and good dieting (this might be wrong). One day her boss assigns her to cover the war in the Middle East, and before she can yell Taliban she’s on a rickety flight to Kabul sitting next to Thomas Kretschmann. It’s the usual fish-out-of-water story. Kim is the ignorant western girl, exploring a corrupt and dangerous city by behaving exactly the way she wants to, which is to say without consideration for the customs of the country she’s recently landed in. At one point she dons a burqa and tries to discreetly record a Taliban hate-speech, unaware it’s an all-male gathering. Soon a dozen angry men are pounding away at her jeep and her Afghan contact is none too pleased. It somehow reminded me of the time Lois Lane stood in front of the Eiffel Tower studying one of those pocket guides to common French words and phrases even though she was sent to Paris specifically because she spoke fluent French.
I disagree with the casting choices here. Their personalities clash with the seriousness of the material. Tina Fey’s Kim Baker is about as suitable to the battlefield as Tina Fey would be. Indeed, she’s much better off in movies where there’s less gunfire and more booze. If this is her great attempt at trying something outside her comfort area, she might want to have a word with the writer, Robert Carlock. Every time she’s out in the field she looks like she’s about to begin a stand-up routine.
Margot Robbie plays Tanya Vanderpoel, a sexy blonde reporter whose Attractiveness Scale makes about as much sense as her accent. We see her in front of the camera, delivering the news, maybe once. The rest of her time is spent frolicking along the streets of Kabul and underhandedly cutting Kim’s job from under her nose. Who is this woman? How did she get this job? Wait, scratch that. We know precisely how she got the job.
The most believable character is Fahim (Christopher Abbott), Kim’s taciturn, by-the-books contact. He’s an Afghan man, through and through. No nonsense. No mucking about. He’s there to arrange meetings between the press and key Taliban personnel, and that’s what he does. His best moment comes towards the end, when Kim has decided to leave Kabul for good and move to New York. “In America we’d be hugging right now”, she says. Fahim looks at her, allowing a knowing smile. I thought he might have cast his traditions aside to offer her a farewell embrace, but he remains steadfast and hands her her suitcase instead. Not even a handshake.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is essentially two separate films thrown together, and they don’t work. You can’t tell a story about war and terror and make it look like the girls’ night out. War isn’t about drinking and hooking up, or about your cheating boyfriend and the cute Scottish photographer you’ve drunkenly banged three times. It’s about young men and women thrust into deadly situations they spend every day struggling to climb out of. Every morning could be their last. To me that’s no laughing matter.