Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

Directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
Written by Robert Carlock

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a bit unclassifiable in reality. Given the parameters of the picture, funny woman Tina Fey, mixed with oddly dramatic comedy directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, placed in the setting of the war in Afghanistan, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an anomaly when it comes to cinematic definitions. In the end, I suppose the formula could have been easily  read to result in what is mainly a drama with some odd moments of comedy mixed in, given the prior output of Ficarra and Requa, I Love You Philip MorrisCrazy, Stupid, Love., and Focus, which are all off balance comedy-drama films. But with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, it seems as though the director duo has met their most confused offering yet.

The film follows Kim Baker (Tina Fey), who is a copy writer for a news agency in New York City, sitting behind a desk and never getting into anything too adventurous. But when the Iraq war breaks out in 2003, her agency has a need for reporters in Afghanistan (as all the best have gone to Iraq for coverage). Singled out as being single with no children, Kim is the obvious choice. When she arrives, she must compete for news stories with the likes of Tanya (Margot Robbie), and take orders from General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton). When a three month assignment turns into three years, Kim finds herself addicted to the adrenaline of being a war reporter, seeking balance between doing her job as a journalist, and having a good time with freelance photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman).

I think many people, like me, might just look at this movie on the surface and say, “Hey look, Tina Fey, this must be a comedy, about war.” But the problem is not many war comedies exist where the balance is struck successfully. The best of the bunch, from Good Morning, Vietnam to MASH to Dr. Strangelove, all have their roots in drama, and that is no different with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and quite frankly it would be a disservice to war if any such film wasn’t grounded in drama. But with Tiny Fey in the lead, it just feels unexpected and off kilter, which is nothing of commentary on the performance from Tina Fey. In fact, Tina Fey is fantastic here, managing to strike that balance between funny and solid dramatic performance. It is certainly her best dramatic work to date, and she captures the confused and lonely Kim Baker extremely well.

But that does not mean there aren’t any jarring moments of traditional Tine Fey comedy which seem to upset the balance of an otherwise really solid war drama going on. In a strange way, the comedy seems to land fairly well, but when mixed in with all the dramatic heft at play here, it still manages to feel out of place. A bit like water and oil, two things that work for completely different purposes, but do not mix well at all. This all places a strange feeling when experiencing Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, as the craft and story are evident, from Ficarra, Requa, and Fey, and at the end of the film I believe I was truly moved by the journey of Kim Baker in the three years she spends in Afghanistan. The emotional moments are somehow earned and ultimately effective.

I couldn’t help but think about The Hurt Locker when viewing Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, not because the former is a comedy (it’s not), but because the latter follows a similar lead character arc. Instead of a bomb tech, our lead in WTF is a journalist, whose duty at war is very important as well, and results in a sort of addiction to the type of danger faced during war. Katheryn Bigelow’s film may be more effective in communicating that addiction, and crafting truly suspenseful and nerve-wracking scenes, but I must admit Glenn Ficarra and John Requa cover a lot of the same ground and do so quite effectively. It seems odd saying this, but the it’s the comedic moments in this Tina Fey film which throw it off its path the most, a path we’ve seen before. While the end product was very different from my expectations, once I settled into the type of film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is, I was able to let myself be impressed by the strong drama, even if it also feels as though the film comes a decade too late to the party.

*** – Good

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