“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is a refreshingly apolitical film based on real-life war reporter Kim Barker and her memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book and film detail her years spent as a reporter in the Middle East in the early to mid 2000s. If there is a target audience for this film, I am definitely it. As a former student of journalism, I am drawn to movies about reporters; as a female, I gravitate towards movies with strong women characters. I think this one is going to divide audiences in a big way — you are either going to find it disorganized and chaotic, or you’ll really enjoy what this film is trying to accomplish.
First things first: this film is being grossly mis-marketed as a comedy. It’s not. This is a straight line drama with a few laughs interspersed throughout. Since this movie was based on a real reporter’s personal experiences while embedded in the war torn Arab world, it gives a deeply personal glimpse inside the world of wartime journalists. The writer’s lingo is everywhere and all of it (including the multitude of very creative swear words) feels completely authentic. I went in expecting a loaded subtext of U.S. government bashing and a blatant anti-war sentiment, but I was surprised that there was none of that on display. This movie simply presents a strong, character-driven story. It’s not a propaganda piece that’s trying to convince you of a certain point of view.
There’s a strong sense of humanity to this story, and the most effective scenes are those that deal with cultural gender politics. You get a glimpse into what it must be like to be a reporter in a foreign country, from the adrenaline rush of getting caught up in a lead story (or a dangerous combat shootout) to the alcohol fueled downtime in the foreign press corps’ barracks. The exploration of the addictive nature of war zone reporting and its subsequent high is all the more compelling when told from a woman’s point of view. (I absolutely loved, loved, LOVED the perfect end scene. It’s easily one of my favorite endings of any movie I’ve seen in a very long time).
Admittedly, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” becomes a bit of a muddled mess by the third act, where there are simply too many stories competing for attention. As a result, the better ones get lost in a bunch of noise. There’s a love story, a war time accident, kidnappings, workplace problems, drunken parties, and daring military rescues. The whip-smart dialogue and powerful supporting performances from Billy Bob Thornton (as a sage Marine general), Margot Robbie (as an earnest British correspondent), and Martin Freeman (as a lovably sexist freelance photojournalist) keep things afloat. Never do their characters seem phony or bogus.
I never thought I’d say this, but Tina Fey is absolutely fantastic in the lead role. There’s not one false note in her performance, and it’s evident that this was a passion project for the actress. It’s easily the best role of her career and it’s going to be hard for her to top this.
Yet another example of where the trailer completely fails to match the movie, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is not a comedy. Yes, it stars Tina Fey, and yes, there are a few genuinely funny moments, but humor is a relatively rare commodity in “WTF.” In fact, I wouldn’t even call this a dramedy – it’s more of a straight-up drama.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is the (apparently true) story of Kim Barker (played by Fey), a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who left her safe job in 2003 to become embedded with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. Having never even been to a war zone before, Barker is out of her depth but adapts quickly.
In “WTF,” we get to see a world of violence and conflict, mostly populated by men, through the eyes of a woman. While the movie was interesting for showing the life of a reporter embedded in a war zone, it was only marginally entertaining. Too much ground is covered, which makes the movie feel more like it was trying to complete a checklist of key events in Barker’s life as mentioned in her memoir (this movie was based on Barker’s book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan) without paying nearly enough attention to the lives of the characters being portrayed.
When the movie does get those things right, it doesn’t spend enough time on them, choosing instead to speed through to the next item on the highlight reel. In particular, I wanted to see more interactions between Baker and Billy Bob Thorton’s Gen. Hollanek. The few of those we did get in this movie were some of its best scenes; in fact, Thorton’s performance in this movie is one of my favorite for 2016 so far. Sadly, these genuinely compelling moments were overshadowed by a muddled storyline that simply tried to do too much.
This movie will be interesting to news junkies and those who want to know more about the life of the embedded reporter. To the rest, it will be met with a collective shoulder shrug.