Thursday, November 16, 2017
In our household, we are laugh-out-loud fans of 30 Rock and other comedy projects led by Tina Fey. So we did not start this feature dramedy starting Fey without bias. Despite hopes, however, I saw Whiskey Tango Foxtrot starring Fey bouncing between mediocre, weird and straight-up off-putting. Checking my father to see if he was as uncomfortable as I was, I looked over to see him asleep.
The movie has a risky premise, but we gave it the benefit of the doubt. It focuses on a news reporter named Kim Baker (Fey) -- the same overworked Third-Wave feminist she so often plays-- who get the opportunity to report in Afghanistan and meet soldiers and citizens alike. She seizes the opportunity and leaves her depressing boyfriend to go into a war zone for a “short time” that ends up continuing for years.
Things are crazy from the start, with Fey staying in low-budget quarters and facing death in a combat zone from her first day on the job. But she quickly develops a taste (actually an addiction) to the adrenaline of combat reporting and begins to push the limits of being in a place like Afghanistan.
Problems with this premise show up early (and continue). Are explosions where people got killed that parallel reality, and heartbreaking stories from soldiers appropriate for something trying to be a comedy? A concept they introduced of Fey as a “4-10-4” (a woman considered a “4” in New York who comes to Afghanistan and is a “10” there, then returns to New York as a “4”). is a funny concept that might have worked in 30 Rock, but just felt weird in this film.
As two separate movies (or separate comedy sketch and docu-drama), this could have worked. The funny parts are funny, and Martin Freeman (who plays against type casting as a gruff Scotsman and Fey’s romantic interest) is charming, as are Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott as surprisingly complicated Afghani characters. The representation of the horror of war is interesting and heartbreaking. But as a whole package the film is a confusing mess in the first half and boring in the near-jokeless second.
Tina Fey does a good job, but demonstrates her challenges working without her own material and outside her comfort zone (Fey as the Ripley of Afghanistan?). As mentioned before, supporting players like Freeman, Molina and Abbott are good, as is Tanya Vanderpool (the beautiful Margot Robbie) who plays Fay’s professional frenemy. But on the whole, I would not recommend the film - especially to younger viewers (it’s R rating is for gore, language and - I presume - an intentionally awkward sex scene, although frightening parallels to real life events is what makes Foxtrot least suitable for kids).
Dad replies - Just to clarify, I didn’t conk out until the end of this picture, which is pretty good since I’ve tended to struggle to stay awake in movies, despite joy from watching them (especially with my kids).
Ben hits the key points pretty well. Fey wasn’t entirely miscast, but it would take someone with a much broader acting range to make a story this morally complicated work. War zones featuring cynical war correspondents have been the setting of many great books and movies (Scoop, Foreign Correspondant, Year of Living Dangerously, to name just a few highlights), but Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot (at least the 7/8ths of it I was awake to see) never captured the drama of a society collapsing while reporters allegedly covering the story get drunk, sleep with each other, and stab one another in the back for the latest scoop while the locals try to live their lives, only to be used and killed.