'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot'
Though Tina Fey long ago found herself a spot at the table for the comedic elite on television, her film career has been spotty at best. To be clear, she’s always been good in her big screen outings, but they all tend to be blandly mainstream despite her wit. Thankfully, ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ (reduce the title to the initials if you want to know why it’s called that) finally gives Fey a movie worthy of her talents.
Though imperfect, this war journalism comedy strikes a fine balance between cringe humor and real world ugliness. That tone is incredibly difficult to get right at the best of times and has been horribly represented in the film’s trailers (which highlight only the broadest and most obvious of gags, missing all the good stuff). Seek it out, especially if you thought it looked terrible from the ads. They’re bad, the movie’s not. It’s a shame.
Loosely based on the war memoir of journalist Kim Baker (who was compared to Fey in the New York Times book review, prompting Lorne Michaels to immediately buy the movie rights), Fey stars as a lonely, mousey news copywriter in New York with little more to make her happy than an unaffectionate boyfriend and a Tupperware container of tuna salad. She’s called into a meeting with all her single workmates and offered the chance to become a news correspondent in Afghanistan. Desperate for a change, Baker takes the gig and ends up instantly over her head. Before she even shoots her first assignment, she loses an envelope full of cash at the airport, irritates the commanding officer (Billy Bob Thornton, moustached and excellent) at her base, makes a variety of cultural taboos, and decides she’s made a horrible mistake. But she soon makes friends with some fellow war journalists like Margot Robbie’s wisecracking opportunist or Martin Freeman’s sleazy Scottish photographer, and even makes a high powered contact through Alfred Molina’s hysterical minister of vice and virtue.
For the first half of the movie, ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ is surprisingly loose and episodic, likely taking most of its inspiration from the source material. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (‘I Love You Philip Morris’, ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love.’) keep their tone straight-faced and deadpan. It’s hilarious, but in ways that are a half-step removed from reality at most. As Baker bumbles through her job in her charming way, she becomes a little too comfortable and accustomed to her new surroundings. Dangerous and culturally repressive this country may be, but the American media, military and expats tend to live out their days as one giant desert frat party. So, the movie meanders through an odd mix of profane party comedy, girl power triumph, and media/war satire. Somehow the tones all find the right balance, thanks in no small part to the wise decision of surrounding Fey with character actors rather than comedians. Even in her silliest comedies, Fey has always been a figure of deadpan sanity. Here she’s surrounded by actors who get the joke but never play up the joke. It works well and often brings out dramatic chops that the actress has never before gotten a chance to prove she has.
At a certain point, the film stops rambling along like ‘M*A*S*H’ and develops a narrative of sorts. Thankfully, it never loses its way. The hints of drama that were sprinkled throughout become more pronounced. The movie slowly shows how frontline journalists can become just as addicted to the adrenaline rush of their jobs and desensitized to their realities as the soldiers surrounding them. Everyone starts taking stupid risks and the danger cuts closer. There’s professional backstabbing, existential pining, secret deals made, the whole nine yards. Yet throughout it all, Ficarra and Requa (as well as the script by Fey’s longtime collaborator Robert Carlock), manage to balance the competing tones and narrative threads. The big dramatic scenes always feel earned and are often undercut by a joke for good measure. Performances are excellent across the board. Even the visuals maintain a nice mix of handheld humor and action. While some of the narrative beats start to feel contrived and forced in the rush to the finish line, the train never derails. Its foundation is too strong.
‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ doesn’t beat you over the head with its self-importance. Instead, it remains surprisingly subtle in its charms. The film explores serious themes, makes satirical arguments, provides suspense and action set-pieces, and offers plenty of opportunities for scene-stealing performances. Yet all of it feels light and natural, in a way suited to Fey’s specific style. Sometimes it’s difficult to see how good these sorts of movies are when they don’t batter you over the head with big laughs or dramatic beats, but maintaining balance among all the different tones, ideas and personalities in ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ requires incredible skill that hopefully won’t be lost on viewers. It’s an ideal showcase for everything that Fey and her underrated directorial collaborators do well. This movie might not be the project that finally forces the world to take the three of them more seriously, but it proves that they’re on the right wavelength, and one day that movie will come if they continue to work together.