War is hell. But with enough free-flowing alcohol, bacchanalian parties, sexual distractions, a never-ending supply of adrenal highs and the occasional gutpunch of personal human horror, even an inferno can become home. That’s what real-life American journalist Kim Barker discovered during her years as a fish-out-of-water war correspondent stationed in Afghanistan during the USA’s Operation Enduring Freedom in the early 2000’s. And based on Barker’s memoirs, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot tells her topsy-turvy tale.
It’s also the latest bout of dramedy from genre specialist directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa of Crazy Stupid Love and I Love You Philip Morris fame. If you’re a fan of their previous work – and I am – then there’s a lot to love here: Highly convincing production design (the film was actually shot in New Mexico), some endearing character work, charming performances and a bittersweet texture that permeates every frame adding just a chromatic tinge of tragedy to every laugh-out-loud joke.
As Kim Baker (yes, Baker not Barker, for some reason), everybody’s internet-BFF Tina Fey – who also doubles down as producer – does a sublime job of pulling off this balancing act, with her award-winning comedic talents blending easily into the dramatic. And there’s ample opportunity for both with the plucky 40-something Baker whom we meet in a dead-end copy-writing job at a news network; desperate for a change she leaps at the opportunity to swap out her tiny office cubicle space for the bullet- and feces-riddled air of Kabul on a three month assignment. Emotionally and physically unprepared for this new environment, so alien to her First World western sensibilities, Baker has to lean heavily on the bedrock-steady support of her Afghan “fixer” Fahim (Christopher Abbott). She’s also taken under the wing of hard-partying internationally renowned Australian journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), who also introduces her to Scottish freelance photographer and acerbic “asshole” Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman).
Despite being in over her desert wind-whipped head, Baker’s easy-going down-to-Earth demeanour gets her some frank on-camera statements from the US marines based at Kabul who feel they’re fighting a forgotten war. Her unexpected ballsiness to cover a story during combat encounters also earns her the begrudging respect of salty American Marines commander General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), and some much needed career recognition. While connected Afghan government official Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina) makes no secret that he wants to give her more than just respect and recognition, much to Baker’s chagrin.
But overt sexual advances are as nothing as compared to the perceived gender imbalance experienced by Baker in this male-dominated society. She turns this into a benefit though, using her being a female to gain access to stories that aren’t being told. And as she finds purpose, she soon settles into the rambunctious routine of life in the “Kabubble” with her new patchwork family – a three month assignment becoming years – trying to bring to light the injustices she sees around her, Baker even finds friendship and romance in the unlikeliest of places. But both of the latter may be extremely at odds with the occasionally harsh reality she finds herself in.
And if it seems like I mentioned a lot of elements in the preceding few paragraphs, it’s because Whiskey Tango Foxtrot tackles them all – veering from hard-hitting war drama to kooky comedy to mild-mannered rom-com and everything in between. Luckily the seams between these genre jumps are not that glaring, as directors Ficarra and Requa, accomplished hands at this gig now already, keep things running smoothly and with a steady momentum throughout.
To do this though, there’s a lot of smoothing-out going on, which ends up acting as a double-edged sword. Jokes are certainly funny, but never snortingly so. There’s a collection of emotional tableaus, but nothing that will really have you reaching for the tissues. And the movie’s political insights are also limited in their reach and worldview, highlighting bullet points without really ever delving deeper into the underlying social and moral complexities. But thanks to effortlessly charming and likable performances from the entire cast – especially Fey and Freeman – and a sharply witty script filled with plenty of gushing heart by Fey’s 30 Rock collaborator Robert Carlock, the film still works despite it perhaps trying to do too much at times.
Before adopting its official moniker,Whiskey Tango Foxtrot had the original title of The Taliban Shuffle. And judging by how this biographical romp plays out, that first name may have been more apt as it dances around its myriad points of interest. None of the steps in this dance number is ever pulled off with true showstopping flair, and occasionally some mild clumsiness even creeps into its footwork, but overall what you end up with is still a sweetly entertaining film that should still leave a smile on your face and a pang in your chest.
Last Updated: May 13, 2016