Sunday, March 6, 2016

Movie Review: "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" (2016)

© Paramount Pictures

In a movie culture where comedies and action films involving terrorism or war wind up being offensively out of touch (*cough*London Has Fallen*cough*), the Lorne Michaels/Tina Fey produced Whiskey Tango Foxtrot surprisingly manages to make light of tough situations while making every effort to avoid trivializing them. It's also not the lighthearted comedy the advertisements promised it to be as Fey pushes to take the subject matter as seriously as the studio would allow. With most of the laugh-worthy one-liners shown in the trailer, audiences should expect a film that aims to educate as much as it aims to entertain. Based on the dark comedy memoir by journalist Kim BarkerThe Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, about her time on the ground in South Asia covering stories for the Chicago Tribune, Fey's mature turn as Barker ('Baker' in the film) brings a sophistication to this story's darker elements, even when faced with the over-simplification of the Afghan war.

Cable news copy editor Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is in a rut, with a work and life routine that lacks any excitement, so when an opportunity arises to act as the station's war correspondent from the ground in Kabul, Afghanistan, she naively jumps on the assignment. Having no experience in travel or reporting, Kim faces culture shock, an uncertain war zone, and the struggle to convince people back home to pay attention to this quickly forgotten war. Welcoming distractions wherever she can with new friends, fellow reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and freelance photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), ranging from nighttime partying, 'embed' reporting with the Marines, and investigating warlords, Kim comes to discover a love of this complicated, beautiful region—not to mention, a passion for life she's never experienced.

Having not read the novel, I can't speak to the liberties W.T.F. took with events. Noting the film's penchant to focus on the bed-hopping, excessive drinking, and the cliche competitiveness among the journalists over showing war events, it does inform the concept introduced of the "Kabubble" (or Kabul-bubble), a warping of reality that makes the dangers of their work feel normal. This is the most interesting feature of the film, and the part that offers most of the comedic moments, adding thrills to otherwise dangerous scenarios and allowing more opportunities to inject humor. Seasoned professionals and mature adults thrust into a literal bubble of imagined safety that feels more like a college frat house than a work place is a fantastic way to challenge Baker's development as a character and journalist.

Tina Fey is far and away the film's best asset. She's smart and natural and never fights for a laugh. Good on her, because strong-arming the comedy here would never have worked, particularly as she comes face to face with legitimately troubling situations, like wandering into a male-only park in the heart of Kabul, or enduring enemy fire to get the perfect video shot on the front lines. The story even takes a few subtle moments to educate the unassuming audience, in case you didn't know that Afghan people aren't called "Afghanis" (that's the currency). Kim's continuous bombardment of education informs her increasing confidence, a self-assurance that adds dimension to her character and the focused goal of the film. A light is shed on the early state of war in Afghanistan, the complex nature of the conflict and the role of international forces there—all shown through the veil of an intelligent comedy.

Writer Robert Carlock does his best to keep the tone consistent, and he's more or less successful. The film never veers into inexplicably serious territory, or on the other side, silliness. But one major exception to the "tonally aware" praise previously given is Alfred Molina's confounding casting as Afghan Attorney General Ali Massoud Sadiq. The "come hither" jokes from Sadiq to Baker are awkward and tasteless, easily the least useful part of the film. And no one should ignore the clear oversight in casting a British actor over an Afghan one—though he isn't the only example of that kind of casting choice. Christopher Abbott, an Italian American, as Baker's fast friend, Kabul native Fahim, is much more effective in forging a connection with our protagonist. Their moments together are actually the most touching in the film, and their interplay highlights an impressive range of cultural incompatibilities that, when effort is made, can be overcome.

The rest of the cast's talents aren't so much wasted, but they're not given as much material to work with. Martin Freeman takes a bit of a departure from his usually innocent and sweet persona and pulls off the womanizing machismo pretty well. Margot Robbie, distracting in her beauty, as always, is far more one-dimensional than she should have been, and sadly, her character is kind of pushed to the side all too quickly. The biggest surprise might have been Billy Bob Thorton as Marine General Hollanek. Not only was he a good fit for the role, he drives every one of the embed sequences and strengthens the messaging about the happenings in war—an obvious counterpart to Baker and her curiosity; Hollanek is a dose of welcome reality.

It could easily be argued that the film doesn't go far enough, only taking a handful of moments to remind us about the violence of the front lines. But at the same time, Kim Baker is a sharp, fascinating female lead, a character that comes to readily understand just how dangerous being a woman unprotected in this region can be, and one who finds a touching camaraderie with colleagues that make the hard work worth doing. The end result is a balanced, albeit overly playful, story that is driven by the incomparable Tina Fey, her strongest foray into a [semi]-drama to date.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

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