Is it possible, or even a good idea, to make a comedy about the war in Afghanistan? Directorial duo Glenn Ficara and John Requa certainly seem to think so. Partnering up with the ever wonderful Tina Fey and her regular writing collaborator Robert Carlock, the team adapts the memoir of Chicago Tribune reporter Kim Barker, who spent three years covering the conflict, in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Though the film largely skirts around the region’s socio-political minefield, favouring a story of personal development, the title’s questionable shorthand does a disservice to the depth of a piece that has more to it than meets the eye.
Imbued with an understated feminism, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t sit comfortably in any one genre but certainly doesn’t just play for laughs in its exploration of self-fulfilment, camaraderie and gender politics. As in Crazy, Stupid, Love and I Love You Phillip Morris, where Ficara and Requa elicited touching performances from Steve Carell and Jim Carrey, a strong central turn sees Tina Fey prove that she is capable of far more than witty one-liners and snappy put-downs. Not a strict biopic by any stretch, Kim Barker becomes Kim Baker here, presumably to allow for liberties of artistic license. Depicting an environment populated by the American military, male journalists and the oppression of women in Afghan culture, Fey’s ballsy, rookie female reporter enters the fray.
Leaving a sourpuss boyfriend and dead-end copywriting job behind, Kim jumps in and slowly but surely finds her feet, though naively puts herself in grave danger on more than occasion: taking a bright orange North Face backpack into a combat zone is a real no-no according to Billy Bob Thornton’s hilariously straight- talking marine commander. Chasing stories by day and letting loose by night, Kim joins a rag-tag band of expat journalists at their ramshackle youth hostel of a Kabul base. The beautiful Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) is just as interested in getting laid as she is in appearing on TV, but takes Kim under her wing as she learns the ropes. Initially obnoxious but swiftly charming is Martin Freeman’s Scottish photographer Iain MacKelpie. His good nature entices Kim as her liberation from the routine and expectations of a former NYC life grows.
The casting of western actors in the leading Afghan roles is a little dubious; Christopher Abbott nonetheless demonstrates fiercely restrained longing as Kim’s fixer, a latter scene between the two one of the film’s more profound moments. Alfred Molina may be uproariously funny as a randy senior politician but his somewhat farcical character knocks things a little off-kilter. At roughly the mid-point Kim runs out of material and the film stutters a little also. More concerned with ongoing work and finding 15 minutes of fame than the real suffering behind the troubles shown, the journalists of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot risk losing sight of what’s important. Thankfully, Ficara and Requa’s latest knows not to take itself too seriously. In its wry humour and moments of sincerity it doesn’t wallow in conflict – but neither does it avoid it.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens