Afghanistan in 2003 seemed to be in the middle of a psychological twilight zone. Attention had turned to Iraq, so networks started cutting their Af-Pak line items because coverage didn’t pull the ratings it once did. The White House was doing the same, as more military resources were needed for George Bush’s shinier war. What resulted were half-measures in both camps, a tepid commitment to an unclear agenda, and an increasingly inapplicable sense of duty for those lost at sea in the Middle Eastern desert. Boots on the ground turned into bare feet in bed, milling around in the multicolored haze of a forgotten war. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot suffers a similar dilemma.
When Kim Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle—which chronicles the former Chicago Tribune journalist’s time in Afghanistan and Pakistan—hit stands in early 2011, a New York Times review pegged her “as a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war.” Five years later (almost to the day), Fey is not only co-producing the screen adaptation, but also starring as Barker (slightly reimagined as Kim Baker, cable news producer) and doing little to ease speculation that Hollywood is running out of ideas.
The war dramedy, from directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love), opens with a flash-forward party scene three years in the future. House of Pain’s “Jump Around” blares from inside a dark, damp housing unit; booze is flowing and people are falling. It’s Project X set in Kabul on a fraction of the party budget. When the scene is safely implanted, an intertitle displays the words “THREE YEARS EARLIER” and the film proceeds sequentially from the day Baker and a small fleet of reporters are more or less volunteered to go abroad, their status as single with no children cited as the desirable qualification.
Not much time is spent stateside, though. Just enough for Baker to self-reflect on a stationary bike ride, drink a glass of white wine and call her boyfriend to break the news. She’s going to Afghanistan. For three months. Yeah, she knows. Yeah, she’ll miss you, too. What unfolds throughout the next hour and a half amounts to an identity crisis.
With Ficarra and Requa, under the producing auspices of Fey and SNL judge, jury and executioner Lorne Michaels—and with frequent Fey collaborator Robert Carlock (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock) heading the script—the comedy muscle behind WTF might have been well-conditioned enough to lift Barker’s story off the page and onto the screen, but that muscle is rarely exercised. TV accounts for roughly 70% of this stable’s career, so maybe a brain trust of old habits were at play. Keeping on the surface of a story they weren’t poised to tell in the first place means sacrificing drama for plot beats.
The boyfriend storyline, for example, is dead weight—not substantial enough to be a burden but prevalent enough to be distracting, like a pygmy monkey clutching the audiences’ ankle, and its inclusion seems to only fill an obligation to the source material. The fast friendship Baker forms with TV journalist and sexual free spirit Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) is less than unlikely, and there’s little to no variation in either character’s respective impacts on Baker. Girls alum Chris Abbott—the one who got away—as driver and translator Fahim Ahmadzai provides WTF with both its strongest performance and Baker’s most compelling relationship, and he does it with 15 minutes of screen time and even fewer speaking lines.
Tone deafness abides. At Fahim’s wedding, Baker channels Eat, Pray, Love philosophy to share her background story, which amounts to getting on a plane after spending too much time at the gym—on the stationary bike, specifically, leaving no metaphorical stone unturned. Although her white privilege is immediately checked by a sassy local, there’s little else in the film supporting any such awareness. Alfred Molina as Ali Massoud Sadiq, a high-level Afghan official, is a delightful buffoon. A Spanish Italian playing an Afghan official as a lovable rascal might have been fine if his character weren’t the only blatant caricature. But he is, so it’s not.
Like the wandering soldiers and unassigned journalists, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has trouble finding a sense of purpose, so it settles for going through the motions and grabbing one-liners wherever they may fall. Inevitably, WTF sometimes feels like a 30-minute travel spot or its own extended trailer. What made The Taliban Shuffle intriguing was an ability to mine situational comedy within the context of the collective nightmare that is America’s image of the Middle East. The gravity of Barker’s reality against the levity of her humor accentuates both: Without the character development or the exposition to color the audience’s understanding, that dynamic is largely missing from Fey’s depiction, and from the film itself.
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writer: Robert Carlock, based on the book by Kim Barker
Starring: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Chris Abbott
Release date: March 4, 2016