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 couldn’t have been more right when she realized what a perfect material this is for a comedy (or a dramedy, to be more precise) starring herself – as strange and surprising as it may seem for anyone when 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). She is also helped by her Afghan “fixer” Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) to get stories and starts to put herself in dangerous situations 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 dangerous, hostile place covered with dusty, windy landscapes that seem terribly uninviting and unfriendly, 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 mainly 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.” The kind of humor that no one would expect to see 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? And yet she definitely knows how to keep her character grounded in reality even in the weirdest of situations – which includes Alfred Molina as fictitious Afghan government official Ali Massoud Sadiq making awkward sexual advances to her as she tries to use him as a source. Molina, in fact, is a strange choice to play an Afghan, considering that he is half-Spanish, half-Italian – 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 good; and Billy Bob Thornton is hilarious as General Hollanek of the US Marine Corps, who sees Barker as a nuisance standing in his way but later starts to get used to her. Thornton even gets to have a great scene with Tina Fey when 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 at first makes you believe 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 on reveals another, unexpected side of his. And it is easy to understand Barker’s interest in 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 truly is.

However, it is Abbott who really blew me away (and even made me forget the whole whitewashing thing for a moment). His Fahim develops the kind of nuanced friendship relationship with Barker that turns out to be the best thing in the whole film, and there are two scenes between them that are worth every second, especially the one in which he confronts her about how she is obsessed with being in dangerous situations (like a drug) – a scene that is so wonderful (and he is so good) that he made me want to see him get nods in the awards season. It is these moments that elevate the movie and make it something special.

And to top it all, 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”), and is not afraid to show (quite graphically) the bloody consequences of the war that they are facing. The scenes that take place in Kandahar, for instance, are sadly revealing and tense, especially when they show a wrecked, graffitied school where education is forbidden for women – women who are forced to be covered 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, and remaining surprising until the very end with a welcome scene that discusses how the Army treats the soldiers who lose their limbs in the line of fire, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is very funny, yes, but above all it is 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 fantastic.

June 20, 2016

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)
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