Whiskey Tango Foxtrot turns the story of the war in Afghanistan into one woman's quest for personal betterment.
At first, I found it strange that the film could conflate these two ideas into one — that the death and destruction rained down upon US troops and an entire country could somehow lead to a woman finding her truest self. But then I realized that's how Hollywood often structures war movies about men; why not make one about women?
And there's a lot that Whiskey does well. It nails the feeling of journalists who are involuntarily cooped up together far away from home, and it nicely conveys why war coverage could be just the thing for adrenaline junkies. There's even a stab at romantic comedy here and there.
But the movie never quite escapes the central flaw in its premise. And even worse, it doesn't even have the courtesy to own it, since it spends so little time with our hero in her prewar New York City life that we don't get a real sense of why she needs to change.
The result is a curiously weightless movie with some nice moments and a truly disastrous third act. Here's the good, bad, and weird of it all.
Good: The story is familiar, but not done to death
At every turn, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot takes you down a path you think you know, then steps off it just a few inches to the left.
It isn't, for example, a film about the Iraq War, which has been "covered" far more often than Afghanistan, even in fictional fashion. Instead, it's about the period between when the war in Afghanistan seemed won and when the country began to devolve into chaos again.
It's also not about soldiers; instead, it focuses on war correspondents, particularly two women who quickly bond because they're among the few Western women in all of Kabul (or, as they call it, the "Kabubble"). As Kim Barker, the main character, Tina Fey offers a more or less straightforward take on a woman who learns to start living for herself, while Margot Robbie sparks every time she takes the screen as Tanya, a correspondent who shows Kim the lay of the land.
There are times when Whiskey's script (by longtime Fey compatriot Robert Carlock) weds its deliberately episodic structure to a story about adults who seemingly regress to college students in the midst of a hugely unfamiliar situation. And there are times when the movie neatly flips the danger of the war film, by making Kim's only weapon her camera and the images it can capture.
And in those moments, it almost becomes a nifty little war comedy. Almost.
Bad: War is too often shunted to the story's background
It's not that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot deeply needs to be an anti-war tract — or even that it should be a "support the troops" tale of how America gradually forgot about its military personnel (as, say, American Sniper was). Since the story is about journalists, its point of view can remain a bit more obscured.
But there's trying to keep your distance from the subject matter at hand, and then there's what Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does, which is present literally every dangerous situation Kim sees as a chance for her to learn valuable lessons about herself.
There's something unsettling about the way that horrible, horrible events in other people's lives become something Kim blithely exploits as part of her personal growth regimen.
It also doesn't help that the early, New York-set sections of the film last less than five minutes and don't even bother to establish Kim as anything other than a journalist who's never been a war correspondent. So much of her important character development is handled via backfilled exposition later on, and it just ends up feeling clunky.
It would be one thing if Whiskey Tango Foxtrot had Kim experience some painful revelations about herself to complement the ones that push her forward, but it largely doesn't. Any time she's confronted with an unpleasant truth, she's let off the hook almost immediately.
Good: Everybody in the cast seems to be having a lot of fun
Gene Siskel had an old maxim that if he would rather watch a documentary of the cast having dinner together than the movie itself, the movie wasn't working. What's fascinating is how, in the portions of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot that actually work, that imagined documentary is more or less what's on screen.
In particular, Robbie and Martin Freeman (as a Scottish photographer) treat every scene they're in as an excuse to play around with the stir-crazy nature of their characters' lives. Billy Bob Thornton, meanwhile, offers a quirkily masculine presence as a general who Kim comes to bond with. Even Josh Charles as Kim's boyfriend, left behind in New York, entertains in his few minutes of screentime. And while the film's big cameo — playing the head of Kim's network — is one I dare not spoil, it handily pays off a joke and offers a great actor a chance to have some fun with a role.
Oddly enough, then, the weak link of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot might be Fey. She's doing exactly what she's asked to do, but because the movie never really settles on what it wants her to do, Kim ends up ping-ponging between a bunch of different storylines. It feels like a miniseries that's been condensed to two hours.
Bad: There are two major Afghan characters. Neither is played by an actor from the region
On the one hand, I sort of understand why you'd cast Alfred Molina (a British actor of Italian and Spanish descent) as a major Afghan official. He's a well-known enough name — in a movie that clearly wants to build a cast full of well-known names, the better to convince people to watch it — and his presence typically lends instant gravitas to a role that could have been tough to cast. (He instantly starts undercutting that gravitas, too, to add to the comedy.)
But the film's other major Afghan character is played by the up-and-coming American actor Christopher Abbott. As Kim's translator, Abbott is the moral center of the film, and while he's good in the part, he's not so good that it's worth casting a white actor in a role that could have easily been a stepping stone for an actor of South Asian descent.
Abbott and Molina are good enough actors that maybe this could have worked, when wedded with a better portrayal of the rest of the country's culture. But the film largely treats its setting and the Afghan people themselves as threats, outsiders, curiosities, or one-note jokes. (The next-most-major Afghan character — played by an American actor of Afghan descent — is a guy who loves watching porn of men having sex with horses, for instance.) It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Weird: The entire third act of this movie totally loses it
Despite the bad points above, I was mostly on board with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot until its third act, when it completely derails. Kim, confronted with a serious personal crisis, does something that's frankly unbelievable and baffling. (The film is based on the book The Taliban Shuffle, which chronicles what happened when the real Kim Barker covered the war, but if what happens in the film really happened in real life, the movie does next to nothing to set it up.)
And then all of a sudden, we're off on a harrowing rescue mission, scored to Harry Nilsson's classic "Without You," with soldiers storming a supposed Taliban compound, shooting sleeping militants while the music swells. Bursts of gunfire bloom across the screen to light the proceedings, and while we don't see the actual violence, we can imagine its effects.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot's two directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, were probably hoping to juxtapose the horror of war with the ecstasy of the music — to capture the way that this event is either heroic or horrific, depending on how you look at it.
It's a trick that many, many directors have pulled (Stanley Kubrick is perhaps the most famous). But it's one that largely eludes Ficara and Requa. The sequence in question should be a high point; instead, it's another dramatic beat in Kim's journey, as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot heads toward its climax.
The awkward, lurching pace that bedevils the entire film becomes a major problem in the third act, which doesn't seem to know what story the movie is trying to tell — much less how to wrap it up.
And yet, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ends with one of my favorite final scenes of a movie in years, a pitch-perfect closing moment that would be a terrific ending to a more organized film. Unfortunately, it feels like a desperate Hail Mary pass for this one.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is playing throughout the country.
Correction: This article originally said actors of Middle Eastern descent should have played the film's Afghan characters, but Afghanistan is in South Asia. See the real Kim Barker's Twitter feed for more on why it can be hard to cast Afghan actors in films like this.