A funny film about early 2000s Afghanistan, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is marred a little by an uninspired exploration of more serious ideas, but is fun nonetheless
From the directors of Crazy, Stupid, Love comes a comedy set in the early 2000s about a middle-aged woman who, rather unexpectedly, becomes a war journalist in Kabul, Afghanistan. Though it starts well, finding humour in surprising places, the film falters towards the middle: the jokes become less impactful and more thinly spread, and the initial messiness (to be expected for a film set in a war-zone) fails to cohere into anything approaching an engaging plot.
The film follows Kim Barker (Tina Fey), who, dissatisfied with her life writing copy for a news agency, signs up to become a reporter in Afghanistan, where she meets Tanya Vanderpoel (Margo Robbie), a fellow reporter, and Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), a photographer. In Afghanistan, Barker struggles to make a name for herself, having to juggle between the Marines she is embedded with, an overbearing Afghan politician (Ali Massoud Sadiq, played by Alfred Molina), and the locals as sources for news. On top of this are the added difficulties of being a woman in a thoroughly unequal country, and having to avoid becoming addicted to the high octane, adrenaline-fueled lifestyle she finds in Kabul.
The cast all give good performances, though Fey is the only actor who is ever really stretched by the film, having to bear the brunt of its theme-exploring, issue-raising dramatic moments. The result is that she never really gets going comedically (to the detriment of the film), though the performance does stand her in good stead to expand into more serious roles in the future.
Robbie is charismatic, and displays a well-attuned funny bone, though her performance here is hardly career-defining. Freeman is just as good as we would expect him to be, nailing a Glaswegian accent and, at least towards the beginning, portraying a character dissimilar to his usual performances to good effect. The stand-out performances come from the films supporting cast, however. Specifically, Billy Bob Thornton as a U.S. Marine Corps General, providing the films only consistent source of laugh-out-loud humour, and stealing every scene he’s in. As well as Thornton is Christopher Abbott, who plays Barker’s translator, Fahim Ahmadzai, in what is undoubtedly the films best dramatic performance.
When Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is funny (read: the first half, plus any scene Billy Bob Thornton is in), it is very funny, combining the dark humour we’d expect from a comedy war-film with the right variety of clever and absurd jokes. The problem is that while the jokes are good, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa don’t always give them enough time, moving past the punchline so quickly that there’s no time to laugh, or sometimes even register that there was a joke at all.
The other major problem with the film is its (lack of) plot. Less noticeable in the first forty-five minutes, when there’s enough comedy to keep you distracted, the absence of any strong narrative becomes all too apparent as the it progresses, threatening to derail the film. Part of this may just be a poorly executed attempt at prioritising character-study over plot, but there is also a sense throughout the film that Ficarra and Requa are too bogged down in the thematic aspects of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
Far too much time, for example, is spent on rehashing ideas and commentary on the nature of war that have already been explored in a much more effective way by other filmmakers – particularly the idea that war, and the adrenaline rush it brings, can be addictive to those involved. As well as this is the film’s rather ham-fisted approach to feminism and to cultural difference – scenes are constantly disrupted to quite simplistically point out either how bad gender-inequality is, or how much better Western culture is than Islamic. In both cases the film doesn’t actually explore either topic, or offer any kind of intelligent or otherwise constructive comment on them, content with just showing us, again and again and again.
Overall, though Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a perfectly enjoyable film. Funny enough to keep you watching to the end, with likeable characters, and a run-time short enough to justify a somewhat un-interesting plot. It isn’t a film you should rush to see, but if you have an hour and a half spare, it’s worth a watch.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016), directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is distributed in the UK by Paramount Pictures, Certificate 15.