Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Special to The History Place
This is my 70th film review for The History Place. While these little essays, and the films they critique, span the millennia, a disproportionate number deal with aspects of the War on Terror. Inevitably, comparisons become inescapable. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, starring Tina Fey as television journalist Kim Baker, intersects in my mind with The Hurt Locker. I reviewed that award-winning film exactly six years ago. Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant William James led the ultra-tense, ultra-deadly life of a bomb squad leader. Home on leave from Iraq, he finds that he is addicted to war. At the film’s climax, we see him back in country for a second tour.
Fey’s Baker experiences a similar metamorphosis. Volunteering in 2003 to cover Afghanistan for her network, she begins her stint in Kabul as a rank amateur, whose prior experience was covering fluff in the Big Apple. In the city of Kaboom, she quickly discovers not only a natural talent for covering warfare. As her Afghan assistant Fahim (Christopher Abbott) warns her, war is an addiction, just like heroin. It unleashes a high. True to his diagnosis, Baker seeks ever more dangerous news opportunities in her ceaseless quest for airtime.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on the real Kim Baker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Co-directors Glenn Ficara and John Requa, screenwriter Robert Carlock, and co-producer Fey play the story mostly for laughs. Supported by Billy Bob Thornton as General Hollanek, Martin Freeman (of Bilbo Baggins fame) as a Scottish freelance photographer and Fey’s lover, and Alfred Molina as the lecherous Afghan attorney general, Fey gives us plenty of chuckles and a few belly laughs. Unfortunately, even her prodigious comedic talent isn’t enough to keep WTF from dragging at times. For a good portion of the film, the story slogs along like marines at the end of a three-day patrol.
My first thought was that Fey and company had bowdlerized Baker’s book. But no, in a recent issue of Vanity Fair, Baker tells her interviewer, “When I came back from Afghanistan and Pakistan I was incredibly frustrated and a little bit furious about how no one seemed to be paying attention to what was happening there. And when I’m angry about something I tend to channel that that through dark comedy. I also wanted to write something about Afghanistan and Pakistan that I thought people would actually read. I like taking difficult subjects and seeing if you can find the humor in it. The book kind of poured out of me.” [https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/03/kim-barker-whiskey-tango-foxtrot-interview]
Well, I can only hope the book is richer and funnier than Fey’s film, which for me only got interesting after she drifted to the dark side, becoming an adrenalin junky ala Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. James. To tell you where Fey’s Baker comes out of this fun house would be a spoiler. And since, despite its weakness, WTF is still at least a rentable film, I won’t go there.
Suffice to say that Tina Fey, while falling far short of Renner’s tour de force performance, provides a credible rendition of Kim Baker’s transformation. Bottom line: stay home and wait for WTF to be available on demand. Then give it a gander.
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images.
Dr. Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer, consultant and writer, whose webpage is https://jamescastagnera.wordpress.com/. His most recent book is Handbook for Student Law for Higher Education Administrators (Revised Edition 2014).