Title: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Major Players: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton
Out Of Five: 3.5
How’s your phonetic alphabet? Actually, you don’t need to be fluent to understand what this title is all about but, coupled with the casting of Tina Fey, it immediately takes you in one direction. This is going to be a military comedy, perhaps along the lines of M*A*S*H, right? Wrong.
The story is based on the memoirs of American TV journalist, Kim Barker, who covered the war in Afghanistan. When the book was published, one reviewer said she’d depicted herself “as a sort of Tina Fey character.” And, hey presto, here’s the film! This time it’s Kim Baker (Fey) – she’s lost an “r” somewhere along the line – who’s the journalist stuck in a boring desk job and who takes a two month posting in what the media corps call the Kabul Bubble. The military, the weather and the culture all mean she’s a fish out of water but she adapts faster than she expects and ends up staying for two years.
This is no comedy: it genuinely is about a journalist relating her experiences in Afghanistan. What intentional humour there is mainly focusses on sex: a 4 in New York but a 10 here, a pair of dogs permanently getting it on in the yard outside her room window, that sort of thing. And there’s the occasional bit of irony, such as her story about the first woman in Kabul to pass her driving test. As she tells the story, the woman concerned gets into her car, throws it into reverse and crashes it. As Kim says through clenched teeth, this isn’t good for women.
What we have here is a look at the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of a media person, one that falls somewhere between a comedy and the weightier films on the same subject, like Zero Dark Thirty. It finds itself in cinematic no-man’s land, because the laughs are thinly spread, but it’s not hard headed enough to find itself in the same company as Bigelow’s film or the Danish offering, A War, just released on DVD.
There’s a lot about the discomfort she has to put up with: the wind makes her hair blow all over the place (get it cut? tie it back?) and there’s no ladies’ loos when they’re out on a mission. But what the soldiers have to go through is severely limited, with the exception of one scene, which is more graphic than anything else in the film. It feels about of place with the overall tone of the film, but that’s intentional and it’s what gives it impact. Otherwise, it’s sanitised war, remarkably clean, so when press photographer Iain (Martin Freeman) is freed after being kidnapped, he looks surprisingly well, with no signs of weight loss and just a bit of stubble.
There’s no denying this is a vehicle for Fey, one that gives her an opportunity to move away from her usual comedic stomping ground and she is the film’s big plus point. She gives her character a cheeky intelligence, combined with the sort of the bravery and recklessness driven by a journalist’s hunger for the big story. But the same can’t be said for the other big names in support roles. Alfred Molina is wasted in a caricature role as a government official who has the hots for Kim but never gets past first base. Martin Freeman sports a generic Scottish accent that I initially thought was going to turn out to be a joke. It wasn’t. Margot Robbie veers between English, American and her native Australian in a role that gives her little to do other than provide Fey with a different blonde sidekick as a change from Poehler. And Billy Bob Thornton has little more to do than play the crusty silver fox as the General in charge of the Marines who has a soft spot for her.
Don’t get me wrong. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a more than decent watch and I can think of far worse ways of spending an hour and a half. I just wish it could make up its mind what it really wants to be, instead of abandoning itself between two camps. It’s most certainly not what I was expecting and maybe that’s part of the problem. A different title might help.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is in cinemas now and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on 12 May.