WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT Review
Director: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
If war is anything, it’s “meh.” Or at least that seems to be Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s intention in the latest Tina Fey vehicle, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT. But where did it all go wrong, or rather so overwhelmingly mediocre? After some thought, I’ve decided that this slump-of-the-year release is actually the most fascinating film I’ve had the pleasure of dissecting in recent memory, because amidst all the haphazard comedy, failed satire, and template-reliant plot structure, there lies a comedy that’s suffered the unlikeliest of fates: It is so in tune with its theme that it sidelined everything else.
Putting on her best Liz Lemon like it’s a Cinderella shoe, Tina Fey spearheads the tale of a bored copywriter who finds herself living in Kabul after a last-minute decision from her network puts her on the front lines of the Afghan conflict. What immediately becomes obvious during the film’s first act is how anxious the filmmakers are to get Fey to her home away from home. With that, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT completely fails to establish any of the cues that help define Fey’s character, leaving her an empty slate that has no choice but to be refined through her experiences in the war zone. The problem with this is that Fey seems to take the risky job because she is bored, which plays out like one of the laziest inciting incidents to a comedy in recent memory. If that’s all Ficarra and Requa want to leave us with, that’s fine, but a scene in the early second act verbally justifies Fey’s decision in a way that leaves audiences wondering why none of this was relayed visually at a time where we needed a reason to feel sorry for her.
He-hey, Afghanistan! Time to tear up the city, ladies!
This lazy writing starts to permeate into the directorial execution of Fey’s comedic beats, each clumsier than the one before it. Although the comedy is admittedly funny, it feels entirely misguided from the moment Fey steps foot in Afghanistan. As a film that tackles a serious geopolitical issue, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT holds a responsibility of functioning as satire in order to get its point across. Instead, it aims for teeth-gratingly low-hanging fruit, patronizing Afghan citizens with expectedly mixed results, like the opening of BORAT but without the satirical wit and biting rhetoric. What is all the more disconcerting with this approach is that Fey’s film no longer functions as a discussion on American involvement in the Middle East, because its message gets muddled in comedy that seems to imply that Muslim people can’t take care of anything. After all, their capital city smells like poop.
It was at this point that I realized that writer Robert Carlock did not write a comedy, but a meditation on acclimation. Now this might be a stretch, seeing as his most notable accomplishment is THE UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT, but bare with me for a second. WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is at its best when it lets itself be a drama about the dangers of warzone journalism. Carlock is remarkably in touch with his film’s themes, subtly incorporating intelligent allegories that carry through the entirety of the film and even manifest in blocking onscreen — discussions about frogs adapting to ever-increasing temperatures, heroin addicts hurting the ones they love for another fix, and cleverly using the journalistic term “hit” in order to have Fey exclaiming that she’s just looking for another. Hell, one of her friends is even consistently referred to as her “fixer.”
“You shoot, I shoot, haha, get it, get it?” – Famous last words
It’s moments like these where Carlock’s writing shines, and it follows through in Ficarra and Requa’s direction, playing with the repeated motif of what Fey looks like when she wakes up in the morning. Unfortunately, this doesn’t carry through in the greater narrative, dismantling Carlock’s fantastic chassis due to a completely inept narrative structure that is too reliant on the Hollywood template. Fey’s romantic entanglements and drunken party behavior only serve to undermine the terrifying sequences in which she finds herself drunkenly stumbling through Kabul without a Hijab.
The film’s allegories constantly seem to imply that Fey is too wrapped up in the high of fieldwork, but she never seems excited enough and never reaches a highpoint in order to warrant a cathartic downfall when something goes wrong. In fact, it consistently seems to be the people around her that get into more trouble than her, making one wonder why she’s the main character in the first place. Why any of this happened is absolutely baffling, because fundamentally there’s an important film hidden under the guise of a childish farce.
It also becomes an indie romance midway through
HBO’s JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY story showcased something about the dangers of conflict journalism that hasn’t been properly explored yet in fictional cinema. With WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, it’s only been reaffirmed that this subject can be handled with narrative fiction. And although Fey’s story is based on true events, it never feels authentic because it’s just shy of embracing the mania that these people can find themselves wrapped up in. As WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT comes to its bland, unsatisfying epilogue, I started to wonder who in the production of this film wanted to see a riotous farce, a clever satire, or a somber commentary on the differences between the Arab world and the west, because I can pretty much rest assured that Carlock had intended to write a study on how a person can lose themselves in a sea of adrenalin. These differing messages are what lead to the self-destruction of a comedy that probably should have never been one to begin with, because regardless of how you spin it, you can’t be ARGO, BORAT, and JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY all at once.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend