Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a film that reeks of too many cooks in the kitchen, and no one really being sure of what kind of movie they wanted to make. They want a film that hits hard enough to be honest to the war experience, but not so hard to remind anyone in the audience that war is hell or to feel even moderately uncomfortable when Tina Fey cracks a joke about bad women dramas. Somehow we walk out of the film feeling like we know even less about the War in Afghanistan than we did before other than it’s the “forgotten war” when really Whiskey Tango Foxtrot should just be a forgotten film.
Based on the memoir by Kim Barker, the film follows Kim (Fey), a desk bound news writer who decides to shake up her life by signing on to be a war correspondent in Afghanistan in 2003. The movie then follows her life over the next three years as she becomes further embedded in the “Ka-bubble” (a portmanteau of “Kabul” and “bubble”) and accept the normalcy of life in a warzone (a warzone we rarely see and, for the purposes of the film, only exists to enrich Kim’s sense of self). We get to meet other people who exist in the odd limbo of Kabul like the gorgeous reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and the charming photojournalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) who strikes up a romantic relationship with Kim because this movie is basically Eat Pray Love meets The Hurt Locker.
Partway through the film, we get a labored metaphor from Kim’s interpreter Fahim (Christopher Abbott giving a great performance that’s undercut by a whitewashed role) about drug addiction and how Kim is just seeking to get a bigger high. That’s a worthwhile story (I like The Hurt Locker), but WTF (a title that is too clever by half) lacks the temerity to go to really scary places. A couple of faceless security guards might get blown up, but the horrors and complexities of war are outside the bounds of Whiskey and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa aren’t taking a Jarhead approach where they show the malaise of war.
The movie never makes up its mind what it wants to be, so it just chases the nearest emotion it can grab without ever earning it. If it’s time for Robert Carlock’s script to have Kim act like 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon in the desert, then there’s no problem tossing out some zingers. But when it’s time for the character to get emotional or feel betrayed, the movie attempts to draw from a shallow well because Kim isn’t a particularly interesting character. She’s selfish, but not in a compelling way. It’s like everyone is afraid to have an unlikable character be the lead, so they rest on Fey’s charm when instead they should have given her the chance to be somewhat loathsome.
That leads to the question of “Does Tina Fey have range?” and I’m not sure if she does. Comically, she’s unquestionably gifted, but I’ve seen her in dramedies like Admission and This Is Where I Leave You, and her default mode for drama seems to just be like an authority figure who is very disappointed in you. That worked wonderfully in that one scene in Mean Girls, but that’s a moment, not a emotion, and Fey always seems distant when she should be willing to be vulnerable enough to be disliked.
Unfortunately, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot wants to be a war movie without the messiness of negative emotions, and that doesn’t work. It’s the cleanest war movie possible without being propaganda, and the only reason it’s not propaganda is because it’s advocating self-actualization rather than pushing forward the interests of a country. If Kim Barker did end up finding herself over in Afghanistan, that’s very nice. It’s also incredibly small and, in the scheme of things, pretty worthless.