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Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Eric here with a take on the new Tina Fey film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, an adaptation of journalist Kim Barker’s memoir of her three years as a war reporter in Afghanistan. 

It’s hard to watch WTF and not think of the film’s clear antecedent, Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam with Robin Williams:  both films are custom-tailored star vehicles that take a Western audience into a foreign culture, finding a tone between the comedy we expect from the leads, and light drama that allows them to expand their personas a bit...  

Williams, at the time, was probably the funniest manic person alive, and Fey is probably the funniest quiet person alive, and WTF feels ultimately more successful than Vietnam for the tradeoff on Fey’s brand of subtlety.  While Williams was an inherently extraordinary person, Fey is an inherently ordinary person, and that perception lets you breathe into the dramatic portions of WTF…you always feel that Kim Barker is a “regular” civilian in extraordinary circumstances.

The first two thirds of WTF center around a hodgepodge of incidents where Barker is thrust into the unfamiliar sights and sounds of Kabul.  This narrative n’existe pas is used to the film’s great advantage.  It’s where directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa soar, because they show details about this environment that almost any other director of a mainstream film would leave out (e.g., a local lighting his cigarette from a hot gun; body language of the locals, etc.).  In fact, the single best thing about WTF (and it’s a biggie) is the sensitivity with which the culture and people of Aghanistan are portrayed.  There isn’t a shred of the usual dumbing-down of politics, and Ficarra and Requa see all of their characters as deserving of dignity and respect.  They get a startlingly touching performance out of Christopher Abbot, who plays Barker’s fixer:  the penultimate scene in the film with him and Fey lands exquisitely and is emblematic of the intricacy that the directors sometimes score from the culture clashes. 

Unfortunately the final third of the movie gets bogged down in a last-ditch effort to give it some narrative drive.  It helps that these story strands involve payoffs for Martin Freeman (glorious fun as the love interest) and Margot Robbie (developed in the same laboratory that brought us Brad Pitt circa 1991).  The actors manage to keep it afloat.

Obviously the picture lives and dies on Tina Fey: she delivers, and it’s undoubtedly the best film she’s been in since Mean Girls.  I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to call Fey a genius, particularly as a writer, as 30 Rock was one of the most well-written comedies ever.  But as an actor, Fey has chosen mostly middle-of-the-road conventional scripts that she was always able to elevate but never save.  She has gargantuan natural appeal, and her dichotomous combination of humility and heartlessness makes her very special.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot unfortunately doesn’t push her too much further, but at last she’s chosen a script (by her friend Robert Carlock) that is dramatically sound and sturdy, and assays a true “heroine” without getting mushy about it. Her performance is more than enough to make you wonder why we can’t push her to new killer heights.

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Reader Comments (7)

Let's hope Florence Foster Jenkins is good because this sounds awful.

March 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Helen Lawson

Helen: What the hell does one have to do with the other?

I liked this quite a lot.

March 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan

I can't wait to see this. Aside from Tina, there are two Aussie ex-soap stars in it! What's not to love?

March 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEz

Tina Fey is amazing - this is getting pretty good reviews and I will be seeing it with friends next week.

March 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Why does Tina Fey continue to be in bad movies?

March 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMatt L

I'm excited to watch this on Netflix or cable. That's not a dig.

Also, that poster is marvelous! What a throwback. This seems like old fashioned entertainment for adults.

March 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.

No comment on the fact that the main Afghan characters are both played by white actors (Abbott and Alfred Molina)?

March 7, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

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