Not pictured: Short Brian.
For everything she did in reinvigorating Saturday Night Live and making 30 Rock one of the funnier comedies in television history, Tina Fey’s movie career has been underwhelming with starring turns in films like Date Night, Sisters and Admission — none of which would be considered must see.
Her latest attempt at translating TV success to the big screen is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a movie about covering Afghanistan after it fell out of the public consciousness in lieu of the war in Iraq. It’s an unusual film, one that offered an opportunity for Fey to expand her acting chops.
Unhappy with her career and life in general, reporter Kim Baker (Fey) decides to take a three-month assignment in Afghanistan to break up the monotony. When she arrives, Baker is taken to the “fun house,” which is a makeshift compound where various reporters, cameramen and other foreign press reside during their time in Kabul.
Already in a male-dominated country and with no experience as a field reporter, Baker is befriended by a number of colleagues, most notably Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman). Soon, Baker finds that she enjoys the work, and the location, and her stay extends from a few months to multiple years.
Relationships then deepen against the backdrop of waning interest in the region, leading Kim, Tanya and Iain to all start taking risks in order to find a worthwhile story to justify their continued presence. And as they increase, so do the potential consequences.
There are a lot of likeable characters in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and a big reason for that is the depth and talent of the cast. Veteran hands like Billy Bob Thornton (General Hollanek) and Alfred Molina (Ali Massoud Sadiq) add a lot in relatively small roles, and Freeman is strong as the cocksure love interest with a killer Scottish accent.
Fey is generally solid in her role as news writer turned war correspondent, delivering big doses of her usual sense of humour along with showing some vulnerability and angst as her life in Afghanistan evolves during her stay. There are definitely moments when it feels like Kim Baker suddenly transforms into Liz Lemon, Fey’s 30 Rock alter ego, but it’s not overdone.
While turn-of-the-century Kabul doesn’t sound like an ideal setting for shenanigans, the film plays up the general absurdity of the situation — dangerous adrenaline-pumping moments surrounded by lots of down time in a place that doesn’t welcome foreigners, particularly women — for laughs. And to its credit, there are several funny moments.
For lack of a better description, Whiskey has something of an identity crisis, and it’s discussed repeatedly during the bonus features. On the one hand, it’s a war movie. On another, there are elements of a romance… and drama. Comedy is undoubtedly the primary target, and yet it always felt like the film wanted to have aspects of many genres without truly committing to one approach.
In fact, lack of commitment is one of its biggest shortcomings. Whiskey wants to mix dramatic elements — a break up, a work-related “betrayal,” etc. — but they’re all resolved far too easily and with no fallout whatsoever. To that end, the final dramatic set piece involving a rescue mission is completely lacking in tension. Why even introduce these events if they’re immediately brushed aside?
THE BONUS FEATURES
There are five featurettes on offer along with a handful of deleted scenes and an extended version of the wedding. The basic “making of” is well done, detailing how they turned New Mexico into a believable Afghanistan, and the back story on weddings is interesting as well. One of the deleted scenes that centres on how desensitized the reporters are becoming is funny and should’ve been left in.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an uneven ride, dotted with funny moments and likeable characters, but hamstrung by a general lack of focus. Still, if you’re a fan of Fey and/or her comedic styling, you’ll probably enjoy yourself enough to check it out.