Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Stars: Tina Fey, Martin Freeman, Margot Robbie, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Peacocke, Josh Charles, Thomas Kretschman.
Based on the 2011 book The Taliban Shuffle, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot looks at journalists in a war zone in Afghanistan. War is a serious matter, but there have been many comedies that have managed to wring laughs out of combat, especially black comedies like Catch 22, M*A*S*H, and even Good Morning Vietnam. Although not in the same league as those films, there is a darker edge to the material. But it also has a comedic approach with some laugh out loud moments at the absurdity of war.
The book The Taliban Shuffle was written by Kim Barker, a cable news reporter from Chicago who spent three years in Afghanistan reporting on the war and the US troops’ attempts to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people in this troubled region. This was a time when the public interest in stories about troops on the ground was waning, and the news services were cutting back resources and concentrating on other stories. It looks at warfare from a more female perspective. But the experiences also changed Barker’s life.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was a labour of love and a passion project for Tina Fey (of 30 Rock fame) when she first heard of Barker’s book. She brought on board her regular collaborator Robert Carlock (SNL, 30 Rock, etc) to adapt the book for the screen, and hired Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to direct. This is a more ambitious film from the team of Ficarra and Requa, who have given us edgy comedies like Crazy Stupid Love and I Love You Philip Morris. It plays out on a broader canvas and has many subplots and threads running through the narrative. But this also gives the material a disjointed and episodic feel. Ficarra and Requa have a quirky and off beat sense of humour that permeates the material and they mix some action sequences with some big laughs and some snappy dialogue.
Fey plays Baker, a fictitous version of Barker, who left behind her borderline depressive boyfriend (an underused Josh Charles in a fairly thankless role) when she was sent to Afghanistan. Initially Baker’s tour of duty was supposed to last for three months, but she ended up spending three years there. In that time she gained a greater appreciation of the culture, the history and traditions of this deeply religious, patriarchal, male dominated society. But Kim also became addicted to the adrenaline rush of war. The film looks at the dangers of reporters in a war zone, and it also questions how far a reporter will go in pursuit of an exclusive story, sometimes even at the risk of their own lives.
The journalists reported from the front line, often venturing out on missions with the troops, but they also partied hard to wash away the stench of war. In some ways these scenes are reminiscent of films like Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome To Sarajevo, which also looked at journalists reporting from a war zone. But that film was far more serious in intent and tone.
Baker is taken out of her comfort zone, but she meets a lot of colourful and quirky characters in Afghanistan who help her negotiate the tricky and sometimes dangerous war zone and murky complex politics of the region. Fahim (Christopher Abbott), a former doctor who works as a guide to the visiting journalists, acts as her translator. Cameraman Tall Brian (Nicholas Braun) and veteran reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Australia’s Margot Robbie, from The Wolf Of Wall Street, etc) help Kim become oriented to the rules of covering a war zone.
She also reluctantly becomes involved with obnoxious but jovial photojournalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman, better known for his role as Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and for playing Bilbo Baggins in the epic The Hobbit trilogy). She also earns the grudging admiration of the gruff, hard nosed Colonel Hallanbek (Billy Bob Thornton) when she accompanies the troops into the war torn villages. And then there is the hypocritical pompous and lecherous politician (Alfred Molina), a powerful man who knows most of the secrets of Kabul.
The role of Baker is tailor made for Fey, who plays against type here in a more dramatic role, and she delivers a nicely nuanced performance. She brings a sardonic tone to her portrayal of Baker.
The film was shot in New Mexico, and this location effectively captures the squalor, poverty and bomb littered landscapes of Kabul and the stark deserts of Afghanistan. Cinematographer Xavier Grobet does a great job of capturing the heat and squalor of the locations, and he also occasionally uses hand held cameras effectively in some scenes to give us a sense of discomfort.
The title of the film comes from the military phoenetic alphabet for WTF?, a perfect title for this look at the chaos and confusion of a war zone.