Mark Reviews Movies

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

Cast: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Peacocke, Shelia Vand, Evan Jonigkeit

MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images)

Running Time: 1:52

Release Date: 3/4/16


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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 3, 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a movie about many things—a person figuring out her priorities, a reminder of the treatment of women in countries where a religion's rules treat them as second-class citizens, a study of the addictive nature of high-pressure and dangerous situations, a biographical account of a reporter's experience covering a war, a consideration of how the news can abandon one battlefield for another when the public's attention becomes distracted. It's about these things and others, but the movie never quite decides what it actually is. Its own priorities are torn.

There's a stretch of the movie during which it does become firmer in its ideas, bringing to the forefront the idea that the journalist's own experience of being a woman in a primarily male-dominated environment will lead her toward reporting on stories that are, in some way, a reflection of her own experiences. It's not an enlightening observation, but it does give the movie some much-needed focus for a relatively brief amount of time. Otherwise, this feels like a thematic juggling act.

The story follows Kim Baker (Tina Fey), who volunteers to cover the war in Afghanistan in 2003. Kim has been stuck in a dead-end job at the network, writing copy for on-air anchors, and fed-up with the realization that she's going nowhere in her life and her career, she essentially decides to overcompensate. It's only supposed to be a three-month assignment, so she leaves the plants in her apartment to the care of her boyfriend (Josh Charles) and sets off to do something different for a change.

The screenplay by Robert Carlock is based on the book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by war correspondent Kim Barker (Note the slight difference between the last names of the real-life subject and the fictional stand-in). Kim arrives in Kabul to experience the culture shock of shared living spaces, a cramped bedroom, and, of course, the sound of gunfire erupting in the middle of the night. Eventually, she will become acclimated to her surroundings, shouting profanity-laced Arabic to a man at the site of a bomb attack in a prologue set three years after her initial arrival.

Kim's shift is never really felt, although that might have to do with the movie's emphasis on situations and circumstances over characters. In that regard, the movie is also, in a very indirect way, about the layer of objective detachment between a journalist and a subject—whether it be an individual person or an entire country in the midst of war. It's a weird place to be for these reporters, whether it be Kim or Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), a veteran journalist on the scene, or Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), a freelance photographer who makes Kim uncomfortable at first but eventually becomes a romantic interest. These journalists at once a part of and separated from the situation at hand.

That brings us to another issue with the movie. For as much as it tries to balance, the movie's view is extremely narrow. It may allude to or indirectly confront the issues of Afghanistan, which—in the movie's timeframe—is moving from Taliban rule to an Islamic republic that seems to have the same methods.

The weight, though, is on the problems of these reporters, who need to deal with long nights out and hangovers in the morning, have trouble getting scoops, are competing for the few stories about which their networks might care. The country is in turmoil, but in the relative safety of their lodgings, the reporters are discussing questions of professional decorum, such as whether or not it's fine to have sex with a member of a competitor's security detail. Afghan women are facing segregation in public spaces (a detailed that's noted only because it prevents Kim from obtaining footage in a men-only park), but Kim is worried she might not be getting all the information the country's attorney general (Alfred Molina) has to offer. That bomb from the prologue may have killed and wounded many people, but the point of the scene is that Kim has found her confidence.

In context, though, it's not a huge deal, and the movie does offer an intriguing view of this strange, involved-but-removed mentality. There's a sense of camaraderie among the journalists. Kim's interpreter Fahim (Christopher Abbott) provides the foundation of what eventually becomes the central theme, which is that people become addicted to the adrenaline rush of combat, even when they're simply observers. The longer a person stays, the more likely it is that the person will be unable to escape it. There's a sense of power, too, which becomes vital when one of Kim's colleagues is taken captive by the Taliban. She finds herself in a perfect position to blackmail a government official and to play on a Marine general's (a scene-stealing Billy Bob Thornton) desire for public recognition.

What is the point here? The movie touches upon too many subjects for it to succeed as a specific story about Kim's transformation, yet it's also too restricted in its viewpoint to really dive into the multiple other topics it raises. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot exists in an unfortunate in-between area, unable to reconcile the main character's distance from events with the events themselves, which seem to be calling out for a more engaged approach.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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