Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has a Tina Fey problem, but then again, Tina Fey’s movie career has a Tina Fey problem. How is it this hard to figure out how best to transition Fey’s multi-pronged TV persona into multiplex success? Maybe it’s worth looking at Fey’s big-screen choices before we look at her as an actress: movies like Date Night and the abominably bland Admission don’t really suit her gifts for presenting normalcy in abnormal settings, a’la Liz Lemon, while Sisters makes up for Baby Mama, a movie that commits the same crime as the other aforementioned two films in Fey’s list of credits.
It seems like easy calculus, maybe even addition, but letting Fey be herself, even a reined-in version of herself, is an easy formula for big-screen success, and so Whiskey Tango Foxtrot looks good on paper: put Fey in the role of Kim Barker, an international journalist who spent several years reporting out of Afghanistan during the United States’ dueling and ill-conceived military campaigns in the Greater Middle East, and let her play to her strengths as a comic and as an actress. For a time, the film does just that; Kim is a stranger in a strange land, bunking with other strangers who have adapted to that strange land, which marks her immediately as an anomaly among her peers. She does not adapt to the cultural shift as much as she reacts to it; she does not acquaint herself with the soldiers and journalists she hangs with as much as she tries not to embarrass herself in front of them.
At first, it feels like classic Fey. After a while, though, we realize that there’s too much of her intentional 30 Rock awkwardness in the frame. If Whiskey Tango Foxtrot did not find its basis in a real account of real events, penned by a real human being, this probably wouldn’t matter; we would content ourselves with Liz Lemon in the Army Marines, and that would be fine. But seeing so much of her coltish affectation in her portrait of Barker is jarring. (It doesn’t help, either, that the film, directed by Glenn Ficara and John Requa, changes her name to “Baker,” for whatever reason.) Is the living, breathing Ms. Barker precisely this much of a bumbler? Does she lack all the same social graces as Fey’s celluloid counterpart?
Fey’s performance is the first element in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot that loses its shine over time and winds up in the “disingenuous” pile. Big chunks of the film are made up. The basics are the same: Barker (or Baker), looking for a career change and an overhaul in her life, takes an assignment in Kabul and while there struggles to find good stories worth relaying to her superiors and to her viewers back in the States. That’s the movie in a nutshell. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is episodic, so much so that one may rightly wonder if it Baker’s (or Barker’s) tale would work better as a miniseries. But maybe that’s a cop-out. Everyone says that about everything these days (and by everyone I mean “me”). The problem, ultimately, is directorial.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a slog. Worse than that, it is a slog with no confidence in itself. This is a movie about an American woman who flies across the globe to take a job in a country with a horrific track record in the “women’s rights” department, and which happens to be populated as much by people as by ricocheting bullets and IEDs. You do not need to take this story and outfit it with spurious bullshit, and you do not need to spin characters out of whole cloth. (In the case of Margot Robbie, who appears in a supporting role as one of Kim’s only female compatriots among the male-dominated foreign press corps, this is forgivable, and based on Ficarra’s and Requa’s experiences with her in Focus, it is even understandable. In that film, she’s damn near magical. Here, she is simply Margot Robbie, which is not a complaint as much as an observation; she is slowly solidifying the “what” that she brings to her performances, namely spunk and self-assurance.)
Ficarra and Requa have no faith in Barker’s yarn as a compelling series of ground-level observations about sexism in an industry led chiefly by men, about Afghanistan, about the U.S. military, about self-empowerment. And that would be fine, if a bit of a bother, if Whiskey Tango Foxtrot managed to be about all of those things without being intermittently excruciating. There are moments where Ficarra and Requa, working off a script by 30 Rock writer Robert Carlock, find a groove and the movie starts to work; these are in all likelihood the moments that cut closest to Barker’s words, and to what she actually went through and encountered during her time in Afghanistan. In one sequence, Baker tries to film an angry mob of men shooting pistols at television sets in a public square, not realizing that her very presence among them puts in her in danger; in another, she discovers why a local village well has been repeatedly blown up and who has been doing the repeated blowing up. These are the beats where Whiskey Tango Foxtrot tries to engage with Barker as a person, and with her career, and with the world she voluntarily set foot in all at once. It is the closest the film gets to feeling revelatory.
The rest of the time, you wonder what the hell Ficarra and Requa are trying to say through Barker’s memoir. Is this their attempt at honoring feminist screeds? Are they trying to make a comment on the bureaucratic faker of the media world? Do they mean to offer critique of the United States’ entrenchment in Afghanistan and also in Iraq? (If so, everyone else has beaten you to the punch on that one, guys.) Maybe. Yes. Sure! But answering each of these in the affirmative forces us to circle back around to the film’s disjointed structure, and to take note again of Fey, who by turns fits the film perfectly and reads as totally out of place depending on the scene. Ficarra and Requa do well when letting their actors bond, and Fey is excellent at working off of other performers; aside from Robbie there’s Martin Freeman, her token love interest, Christopher Abbott, her “fixer,” and Alfred Molina, a chauvinist politician. (It is amazing that no one has yet raised a ruckus over the film hiring two white guys to play Middle Eastern men, but there you have it.) But Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t the kind of project that can function just by jamming a talented cast together and letting them click. It’s an opportunity to see the Afghanistan War through new lenses, both literal and figurative. Considering the source material, the film winds up having shockingly little to say from either perspective.