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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot | Review

Where They From: Ficarra & Requa and the Privileged Perspective

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot PosterCinematic depictions of the ongoing conflict(s) in the Middle East continue to be a touchy subject, particularly for those English language illustrations daring to convey a certain satirical element involving the U.S. presence there. While pleasing everyone is never a possibility, there are several elements about Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot which could have been easily remedied to avoid inarguable ire, namely with its severely miscast supporting actors. Based on the 2011 memoirs of journalist Kim Barker, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this is provocative subject matter made all the more alluring by the self-aware talents of Tina Fey doing her best to subvert our expectations of a white, privileged perspective. Overall, the end product has too many glaring demerits to warrant praise, but as a showcase for a well-rounded serious side for its lead (along with more-or-less avoiding the treachery of clearly defined studio film formulas), it’s not half bad.

Kim Baker (Fey) works as a general news producer for a successful network, headhunted as a possible candidate as a foreign correspondent since she’s unmarried and without children and could feasibly cover the war in Afghanistan raging circa 2003. Leaving behind her long term beau (Josh Charles), Kim commits to a three month stint in Kabul but eventually stays several years, reveling in the exciting energy as she networks with her local fixer, Farouk (Christopher Abbott—more on this shortly), hobnobs with sexy reporter Tanya (Margot Robbie), and becomes involved in playful flirtation with her Aussie bodyguard Nic (Stephen Peacocke) and Scottish photographer Iain (Martin Freeman). Comical relationships with both the Afghan Prime Minister (Alfred Molina) and the gruff Gen. Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) eventually play significant roles in her development.

By now, it should be clear audiences are not ready for any sort of frivolity involving the Middle East, especially depictions aided by questionable perspectives guiding us there. Last year, Barry Levinson’s misfire Rock the Kasbah featured Bill Murray as a manipulative music manager fostering a local Afghan woman’s singing talent, a production which at least had the sense to cast a non-American in its weightiest supporting role. Not so here. In a bit of egregious bad taste, somehow, someone felt it was appropriate to cast two Anglos, Christopher Abbott and the even more distracting Alfred Molina, as integral characters in a distracting bit of brown face. While this isn’t at the same offensive level as something like Mickey Rooney’s Asian stereotype in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), this move recalls the same sense of cultural indifference, and likewise detracts from the film’s other strengths, namely Fey.

Adapted by SNL scribe Robert Carlock, who worked with Fey on “30 Rock” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” it is evident much of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot seems specifically calibrated for its lead star, including the annoying insistence of continually questioning the brunette beauty’s sex appeal, juxtaposed as the brown mouse to the voluptuous blondeness of Margot Robbie. But this isn’t Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or 1953 so the constant undermining of feminine worth in relation to her desirability continues to be troubling, especially treated in these modernized depictions of generally accepted fact. Also curious, the slight name tweak (Fey is Kim Baker and not Kim Barker, Chicago Tribune reporter) would seem to indicate more than the customary exaggerations have been for the sake of entertainment.

Ficarra and Requa, who built a strong, foul-mouthed reputation for themselves following the writing of Bad Santa (2003) and their directorial debut and strongest effort to date, I Love You Philip Morris (2009), have lost none of their penchant for authentically inclined adult interactions (despite their cuckoo rom-com fantasy Crazy, Stupid, Love., 2011). And there are sobering moments of significant contemplation, such as the dire consequences of reporting regarding the fate of a man Kim specifically references in her first segment (a detail which seems horribly illogical in the first place) but these are followed by bits of absurdity, such as Kim becoming the conduit for a group of Afghan women who keep blowing up a well the marines keep digging for their benefit (shades of Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s A Perfect Day here).

However, there’s often the impression Ficarra and Requa somehow missed the mark, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s eventual meaningless feels akin to 2015’s con-artist romance Focus. Fleeting moments showcasing Kabul locals finds a war-torn populous obsessed with self-surveillance, where its female members seem most militant in the preservation of considerably demeaning gender norms. But Kim Barker’s astonishing experience, despite being directly acknowledged as a white woman’s viewpoint, becomes more of an exotic version of Eat Pray Love rather than develop the self-awareness into a meaningful representation of what exactly media coverage and the quest for ratings and airtime means for war journalists and their contacts on the ground.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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