Until the gorilla wants to stop: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) 

As surprising as it may seem for anyone thinking about the war in Afghanistan, WTF finds a remarkable balance between comedy and seriousness

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Written by Robert Carlock, based on “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Kim Barker. Starring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton and Josh Charles.

In 2011, American international journalist Kim Barker published a memoir called The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan which detailed her experiences as a war correspondent in those countries during Operation Enduring Freedom. According to the author, it was after Michiko Kukutani reviewed the book for the New York Times (even saying that Barker “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character”) that Fey became interested and decided to make it into a film. And Fey got it right when she realized that this is a perfect material for a comedy (or a dramedy) starring herself – as strange and surprising as it may seem for anyone thinking about the Taliban and the war in Afghanistan.

Adapted by Robert Carlock (a veteran of Fey’s series 30 Rock) and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip MorrisCrazy, Stupid, Love), Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (whose delicious title is military phonetic alphabet for WTF) begins when Barker (Tina Fey) is assigned to Afghanistan, leaving her disappointed boyfriend Chris (Josh Charles) back home. There, she meets other international journalists, among them noted Australian correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and lewd Scottish freelance photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman). Helped by her Afghan “fixer” Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) to find stories, Barker starts to put herself in dangerous situations in order to capture combat incidents on camera while at the same time begins to feel competitive towards her fellow journalists as she tries to get more and more stories.

Finding a remarkable balance between comedy and seriousness right from the beginning, WTF depicts Afghanistan as a hostile place covered with dusty, windy landscapes that seem terribly uninviting – and Barker is even expected from the locals to cover herself (like an “IKEA bag”). To make things more complicated, she also needs to adapt (and fast) to an environment composed mostly of men, which of course includes the casual sexism that comes with it. My favorite moment that illustrates this whole fish-out-of-water situation is when she needs to take a leak in the bushes in the middle of a field operation and a soldier says with no mincing the words that “it must be a hell of a hairy dump.” It is the kind of humor that no one would expect to go so well with action scenes shot with a handheld camera in the middle of the desert dust.

And who can better pull off this kind of humor than Tina Fey, who has proved many times that she can be funny even with a blank, deadpan face? Yet she definitely knows how to keep her character grounded in reality even in the weirdest of situations – including a moment in which fictional Afghan government official Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina) makes awkward sexual advances on her as she tries to use him as her source. Molina, in fact, is a strange choice to play an Afghan considering that he is half-Spanish, half-Italian, in another irritating example of Hollywood whitewashing. But he pulls it off, of course, like he always does.

The rest of the cast also shines: Margot Robbie is beautiful and deliciously foul-mouthed; Josh Charles is always talented; and Billy Bob Thornton is hilarious as General Hollanek of the US Marine Corps, who sees Barker as a nuisance in his way but later grows used to her. Thornton even gets to have a great scene with Tina Fey in which she tries to convince Hollanek of a rescue – a beautiful exchange of dialogue in a movie that is full of them.

But the highlights are definitely Martin Freeman and Christopher Abbott, the first as a surprisingly complex character who makes you initially believe that he is only – and forgive me the language, but I can’t think of another word – a dickhead who doesn’t have any respect for women but later reveals a completely unexpected side. We can understand why Barker would feel something for him as she begins to realize that there is a lot more to his character than what he shows, and what an incredible person he actually is.

However, it is Abbott who blew me away (and even made me forget the whole whitewashing for a minute). His Fahim develops the kind of nuanced friendship relationship with Barker that turns out to be the most interesting element in the whole film, with two exchanges of dialogue that are worth every second, especially one in which he confronts her about her obsession with being in dangerous situations (like a drug addiction). This scene is so wonderful (and he is so good) that it made me wish he got nods in the awards season. These are moments that elevate the movie and turn it into something special.

The excellent script also finds time to mention the glaring cultural differences (like a couple forbidden to hold hands in public) and the poverty (“It is a scam but they are still begging”), never afraid to show (quite graphically) the bloody consequences of the war. The scenes that take place in Kandahar, for instance, are tense and sadly revealing, especially when showing a wrecked, graffitied school where education is forbidden for women – women who are forced to cover themselves with a burqa from head to toe (a “blue prison”, as someone points out).

With a wonderful soundtrack that includes Radiohead, Air Supply and The National, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot remains surprising until the end with a welcome scene that discusses how the Army treats soldiers who lose their limbs in the line of fire. The film is quite funny, yes, but also a touching and sincere character study that shows how this whole experience changed Barker as a person. And the sensitivity it finds to tell her story is what makes it so worth it.

June 20, 2016

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)
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