Synopsis: A journalist recounts her wartime coverage in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Stars: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: I believe we’ve reached a point in our culture where it seems downright unpatriotic not to like Tina Fey. There’s something about the funny lady that just rubs us the right way, even if her style of comedy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. A star on Saturday Night Live before launching a successful prime time television career writing/starring in 30 Rock and eventually making the transition to film, Fey relied on her charming inoffensiveness, quick wit, and pointed observations to carve out a niche for herself as a performer and successful awards show host. It seemed like there was nothing she couldn’t do…except drama.
Now I realize that 2014’s This is Where I Leave You had problems way more severe than Fey being miscast as the caustic sister to Jason Bateman’s harried brother. Still, there was something about how out of place she seemed that just cut deeper than that film’s total lack of drive or point. Wisely, Fey retreated back to her comfy comedic shores and scored in December in Sisters with her frequent co-star Amy Poehler. The first time I saw the preview for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot I got this terrible pit in my stomach that another dramatic debacle was on the horizon.
Thankfully, I can write off my tortured stomach to a bad burrito because Fey hits a solid bulls-eye as a journalist that leaves the safety of her office writing copy for newscasters to become a war correspondent stationed in Afghanistan. Inspired by Kim Barker’s book ‘The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan’, the auto-biography has been adapted by longtime Fey collaborator Robert Carlock and produced by Fey’s former SNL boss Lorne Michaels into a veritable star vehicle. And it’s right up her alley.
I’ll admit to being more than a little overdosed on the mortar blasts, dusty locales, and terrorists in turbans found in the recent slate of war films so I was pleasantly surprised that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was able to hold my attention the way it did. Telling a war story from a journalistic angle rather than a military one, the film succeeds best when it puts Fey on the frontlines bravely stepping into a firestorm of bullets to get a video clip for the evening news. As Fey/Carlock will have you believe, Barker surprised even herself in the gung-ho way she threw herself into the work and our star never treats it as an opportunity to mine for toothy comedy.
Eschewing the fish out of water approach that could have been taken, the film follows Barker over the four years she was stationed in the Middle East and episodically recounts the situations she encounters and the people she meets along the way. There’s a beautiful Lara Logan-esque blonde bombshell reporter (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street, reteaming with her Focus directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa), given more depth than the character probably calls for, a surly general (played by a wigged man that looks like Billy Bob Thornton, The Judge…because it is) that’s given less depth than the character calls for, and a kindly local driver (Christopher Abbott, A Most Violent Year) that forms a bond with Barker even though societal norms keeps him from expressing his feelings of friendship.
Barker had several men in her life that cause the only real trouble the film has to offer. She starts off the in a long distance relationship with Josh Charles (Freeheld), is pursued by her Australian bodyguard (Stephen Peacocke, Hercules), wooed by a top Afghan official (Alfred Molina, Monsters University), and eventually warms to a hotshot photographer (Martin Freeman, The World’s End). Only Molina and Freeman register any kind of chemistry (romantic or not) with Fey and in particular it must be noted that Freeman gives one of his best performance, free of any of his heretofore constant nebbish line readings and meek demeanor.
In the end it’s Fey that really sells the film. It was nice to see the actress leave some of her trademark tics back in the US. Gone are the clipped one liners, anguished eye rolls, winking asides to the camera. If some of her lines are delivered with just a hint of her classic smirk, it’s easy to forgive seeing that it feels right in the context of the character.
Carlock’s script leaves a lot unexplained, fails to fully flesh out some of the supporting players, and there’s really no third act to speak of, but the film plays nicely with audiences and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Going in I wasn’t sure I’d like Fey’s further attempts at drama, coming out I was wishing this had come out later in the year so she’d be included in some end of the year recognition. It isn’t unheard of that it could happen seeing that it’s a worthy performance in a decent film.