First off, let me get something off my chest – the title of this film is absolutely horrible. Now I understand where it comes from – “Whisky Tango Foxtrot” is military slang for the expression “WTF” – but can we just note that they actually chose to use that as the title of a film that covers some pretty important issues. The biggest problem is that I have been tracking the production of this film for a while now, and it started out as The Taliban Shuffle (which was the title of the book this film is based on), and then moved onto to Fun House (which I was happy they changed – I am still holding out for a film adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home). It feels like they had so many options as to what to name this film – and they certainly went with a pretty bad one. Sure, its memorable – but its also utterly stupid, and honestly almost ruined the film for me. People don’t realize how important a title actually is, but it goes a long way in setting the tone of the film. Sadly, that wasn’t the only major problem with Whisky Tango Foxtrot.
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have come a very long way in the past few years – they gave Jim Carrey one of his best roles in I Love You Phillip Morris, and made a pretty decent romantic comedy with Crazy, Stupid, Love. But it seems like they are starting to gain some popularity, which means a decline in actual good work. I found their 2015 film, Focus, almost completely unbearable, mainly because Will Smith still insists on being a leading man, even if he doesn’t put much effort into it anymore (and perhaps when he realizes that he is not the Will Smith of the 1990s and early 2000s anymore, he will move on with his career). Whisky Tango Foxtrot is an improvement over Focus, but only just slightly. By all means, it is still a pretty mediocre and run-of-the-mill comedy that tries to find humour in a very serious subject, but unfortunately it never gets to that point, and rather simply becomes a mess. There are a few redeeming factors, but they are not enough to save Whisky Tango Foxtrot from mediocrity.
Whisky Tango Foxtrot, as I said above, is based on the non-fiction book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, one of the most fascinating and deeply insightful looks at the American presence in the Middle East, told through the eyes of a cynical but intelligent war correspondent. Its a book that deserved a film, it just deserved a film far better than this one. The film covers a few years in the life of Kim Barker (or rather, for some reason she has been renamed to Kim Baker in this film – yes, very subtle change there, as if we can’t deduce who this film is about), as she works as a foreign correspondent within Afghanistan in the early 2000s, and encounters the strange world of war, foreign policy and journalism in a often terrifying but ultimately rewarding few years of working right in the middle of a war-torn country. It is there, in the home where many foreign correspondents live, known as the “Fun House”, that Kim learns quite a bit about the world of war journalism.
The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a fascinating book, but it just doesn’t translate to film that well, or rather it doesn’t translate into this film that well. A story like this is always a welcome change to other war films, but it just doesn’t work as the kind of broad comedy this film tried to be. The issue with this film is the tone. It tries so hard to be a broad comedy – and they even attached Lorne Michaels’ name to it, as if that would bring audiences into the theaters. I don’t know much, but I do know one thing for sure – war and broad comedy don’t work together. You can’t have scenes of Tina Fey drinking heavily and falling in love with every man in that house, and then in the next scene show brutal military attacks and death. I would understand if this film was attempting to be a dark comedy, satirizing the war, but it honestly tries to be both a pro-America piece, as well as a hilarious comedy. It fails on both accounts, because it adds very little to the already overstuffed canon of American war films, and it is certainly never funny, and the attempts to make the audience laugh is more brutal and disturbing than the several scenes of mutilated bodies and extreme poverty.
This film doesn’t know what it wants to be, and in the process of trying to be everything, it fails completely, and just becomes an inconsistent, tonally irritating film that serves very little purpose than as some sort of pseudo-satire on war, without any satire. Let us rather not discuss the fact that in the second act, this film unexpectedly turns into a romantic comedy – yes, Kim Baker, a woman who goes to Afghanistan to report on war, and is constantly surrounded by death and suffering, and is immersed in a culture of inequality and poverty, as well as blatant human rights’ violations, has her biggest crisis determining if she wants to sleep with her attractive New Zealand bodyguard, or the arrogant and rude photographer Iain McKelpie (Martin Freeman) – I am not someone opposed to a romantic film, or a romantic sub-plot in a film. However, I am vehemently opposed to cliched, sappy romance where it doesn’t belong, and I can say with full assurance, it certainly does not belong in a film about the war in Afghanistan. I understand that the events of the love affair are true – but the thing is, they work in a book. It doesn’t work in a movie, especially not one that is trying to show the brutality of war. The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan was a memoir, which told Kim Barker’s story, and thus was her reflection of her life, all of it, while in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whisky Tango Foxtrot is not supposed to make us care about Kim Barker (or Baker, which proves how much they really care about representing her accurately), but rather should have focused on the experiences of what it is like to be in a foreign war zone. I can find horrible romantic cliches in so many other films – Ficarra and Requa actually had a legitimately interesting concept here, and they completely squandered it to tack on some populist romantic nonsense that ruined the film as a whole.
Another problem – the casting. I was initially excited for this cast, because it has some great talent in it. Tina Fey is a great comedienne and one of the greatest writers of the 21st century – and to see her get her own leading role in a theatrical film was wonderful. The problem is that her performance was something anyone could have done – she was just wonderfully mediocre in this role. I realize, when I saw that she produced the film, that Whisky Tango Foxtrot was just a vanity project, dull and lifeless as they come. Fey could have easily remained behind the scenes and given someone else a chance, or she could’ve chosen to be in front of the camera and actually made a film that wasn’t trying to be a populist war comedy, with romance, but rather a genuinely interesting and revealing look at a fascinating subject. Tina Fey is wonderful, and I adore her work, but her performance in Whisky Tango Foxtrot left so much to be desired. Margot Robbie and Martin Freeman were very good, but it saddens me that they were in this film, because they are far better than this.
Unfortunately, there is one enormous problem with this film, and that is in the casting. Now I am not someone who worries about every little injustice, but one tendency of Hollywood that really annoys me is the fact that they are incapable of realizing that there is a world, with trained actors, outside of the Western world. Now sometimes they get away with it, and no one notices – but Whisky Tango Foxtrot, which is a film set in Afghanistan, has a major problem – two of the major supporting roles are played by white actors. Christopher Abbott plays Fahim, Baker’s friend and escort, and Alfred Molina plays the Attorney General of Afghanistan. There isn’t any excuse for this casting, but I could understand the reasoning if the actors were well-known and were box-office draws. As much as I love Molina, he is a character actor, and most people won’t know him by name, and Abbott is an actor known pretty much only for his work in independent films – there wasn’t any reason why these roles could not have gone to actual Middle Eastern actors, and as many films have shown us in the past, there isn’t a shortage of talent from that region. Molina and Abbott should have known better than this.
Whisky Tango Foxtrot is a bad film. It is just dull, boring and overlong. The casting is good, but a talented cast is utterly wasted, and sometimes cast in inappropriate roles. It tries so hard to be a critically acclaimed and satirical look at the war, but it is just simply misguided and annoying at times. It is just a film that could have been better in nearly every way – but somehow, it just did everything wrong. Perhaps not a film that deserves to be critically destroyed, but otherwise it is a dull and boring, and poorly made film that tries to do many great things, but doesn’t achieve a single one of them, unless one of the aims was to make a generic and misguided romantic comedy set in the middle of a war – then they achieved that perfectly.