Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2015)

With its title conveyed in the NATO phonetic alphabet, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT hints at the main character’s heedlessness in becoming a war correspondent and astonishment at what she finds to be normal in that environment. Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is tired of spinning her wheels writing lightweight scripts at a cable news channel, so when her employer seeks on-camera talent to cover the war in Afghanistan, she grabs the opportunity even though she’s not prepared for the inherent hardships and danger. She has a boyfriend who is often traveling but no kids, which frees her to accept the initial six-month assignment.

Beginning in 2003 Kim sets up her base in Kabul in a place akin to a ramshackle hostel for international journalists. Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) gives her a crash course in the dynamics of the place, particularly in regard to her high desirability in a spot with few western women and many men. Scottish photojournalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) becomes a friend who would like to get more familiar with Kim. Interpreter Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) tries to be protective of her even as she takes unadvised risks. Kim gets hooked on the thrill of reporting from a war zone while the public back home increasingly is losing interest.

In WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT Fey stays largely true to the persona she’s developed in films and TV shows but adapts it for a setting more serious than audiences are used to seeing her in. Once again she’s a clever, funny, fortysomething single woman with an unfulfilling personal and professional life, but in this situation there’s little time to spend fretting about her disappointments. Kim’s intelligence and sharp wit function as shields, if not weapons, in a hostile land. She is quick with withering remarks and crude rejoinders, in part because it’s what survival in the male-dominated culture demands, yet there’s a limit to how much her verbal assertiveness can protect her. Fey is good at showing how Kim mounts her defenses while remaining aware of her vulnerability. Her funny performance demonstrates that her character can drink and swear like one of the boys but still faces disadvantages because of her gender.

Kim rediscovers herself during her time in Afghanistan, but WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, based on Kim Barker’s book about her experiences, resists being EAT PRAY LOVE goes to war. The film is Kim’s story of personal growth, but it also depicts the lack of change where she’s reporting from. Robert Carlock’s screenplay observes the absurdity and sadness in war-torn Afghanistan. It’s funny that Kim doesn’t recognize the scam of a boy crying over the broken eggs he was going to sell on the street and heartrending to realize that he’s out there doing it out of necessity. There’s humor in a local mistaking an African-American soldier’s presence as meaning that the Russians are now black, yet it points out the decades-long, unresolved conflict in the region.

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa maintain the tricky harmony of laughing at the strangeness of a war zone without demeaning those who endure bombings, searches, and gun battles. Alfred Molina’s portrayal of an upper Afghan official who drops thinly veiled come-ons to Kim is the one out-of-tune exception to WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT’s tonal balance. Molina’s performance contains menace as he implies receiving sex for secrets, but the threatening aspect of him is overshadowed by his clownish behavior. Otherwise WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT stays clear-eyed while taking an askew view inside the bubble of war.

Grade: B

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