Many times since the first Desert Storm we’ve got the “imbedded in the desert” military story. Whether it’s about a bunch of bored marines sitting in the middle of nowhere waiting for something to happen in Jarhead or a bomb specialist wiping the sweat out of his eyes as he stares down a ticking clock of doom in The Hurt Locker, we’ve seen all kinds of different point of views in the Middle East. One that hasn’t been really fleshed out in a big Hollywood film is that of the journalists sent to these countries to gather stories and sit and wait for their networks to deem it pertinent for on air exposure. This must be incredibly disheartening and frustrating.
To push this even further, we never get to see this story told through a female journalist and the pitfalls of being simply a woman in a country like Afghanistan. This is the main story for the new Tina Fey film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a quasi comedy from Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the directors behind Crazy Stupid Love and last year’s Focus. Based on a true story told in the book by Kim Baker, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we get a completely different “fish out of water” tale in possibly Fey’s best theatrical performance where she gets to really stretch her dramatic legs.
The former 30 Rock actress plays Kim Baker, a network news copy writer who pushes herself to be an embedded war correspondent in Afghanistan in 2003. Being totally oblivious to the ways of the war torn country, Baker stumbles into many different awkward situations and cultural faux pas, despite the help of her guide and interpreter Fahim, played excellently by rising star Christopher Abbott. She also quickly makes friends with British television journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), who latches onto the only other lady in the house.
Once Kim becomes acclimated to the country’s ways, she begins to see problems everywhere and not just the obvious ones. Always feeling her journalistic integrity called into question, she makes her way through the constant sexual advances of a local political official (Alfred Molina) as well a womanizing Scottish writer (Martin Freeman), avoiding a demoralizing choice that would probably have gotten her a story quicker. Where her morals stand tall in this area, as observed around her, that choice is never the common one as she begins to see just how cutthroat this new media sector she’s entered really is.
It was really great to see directors Ficarra and Requa finally get at least halfway back to the excellence of their first directorial venture Crazy Stupid Love. Focus was definitely a stumbling point for them but they managed to take the only thing that worked in that film, Margot Robbie, and make it really work for this new project. Yes, there are a lot of comedic moments and a snappy and funny script in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot but the underlying message of the film is a very serious one and a definite shot through the heart to the American media and what they deem pertinent to their audiences.
What’s unfortunate is the audiences going to this film won’t be wanting this type of a heavy message nestled in what they’ve been sold as a regular comedy, a sort of “Liz Lemon Goes To The War Zone” film. This is not that at all. Kim Baker, for all of her little miscommunications, is incredibly bad ass, thrusting herself right into the heart of the battle when her ride along in a convoy is attacked by Taliban supporters. With bullets flying and an RPG launched, she crouches down with the other marines just to get some footage. That’s pretty inspiring to see a former non-descript newsroom scribe.
The cast formed around Fey seems to work as well. Many will be crying whitewashing at the casting of James White’s Abbott but he delivers a heart and soul to his performance and, really, people may be hard pressed to identify him as not Middle Eastern. This is no Fisher Stevens in the Short Circuit movies, Abbott had a real respect to the kind of character he was portraying. Another of my favorite cast members is Billy Bob Thornton, stepping into the intimidating role of Colonel Hollanek of the U.S. Marine Corps, who finds himself completely impressed with Baker’s fortitude, though his stoic demeanor rarely shows it. The relationship between the two is probably my favorite thing in this film.
In a world where the type of war coverage is determined by the viewership of Joe Blow and his wife and two kids, it’s interesting to see a mainstream film that will actually try to call out the media, although not exactly by name, and make the viewer actually stop and think about the strife these journalists are going through right alongside soldiers actually armed with weapons and not cameras. I think what no one who has seen the trailer and not the movie could believe is that a film like this could have any sort of inspiring tone within it. With seeing these middling reviews for it, I know I was surprised to find a film with substance here but I really did. I don’t understand the low reviews for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and give it a three and a half out of five.