Editor’s note: “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” opens this week from Paramount Pictures, featuring star Tina Fey in the rare role that’s much more dramatic than it is comedic. Chief film critic Eric Kohn traded thoughts with managing editor Kate Erbland about Fey’s often uneven movie career, how the film handles the horrors of war and how Fey might really break through into the big screen world.
ERIC: I’m not quite sure what to make of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” Adapted from Kim Barker’s memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” it turns the years-long exploits of a battlefield reporter into a party-filled romp, a screwball comedy and a heartfelt wartime drama, but never quite fulfills any of those expectations. One one level, it’s kind of like “Hurt Locker” meets “Broadcast News,” and unquestionably one of the more tonally intriguing looks at modern warfare produced on this scale. But it constantly suffers from erratic shifts — jokes that fall flat and racial stereotypes that fall even flatter.
At the center of it all, Tina Fey certainly delivers her most ambitious big screen performance to date, as a morally complex careerist who puts her relationship on hold to chase soldiers around Afghanistan. You can see her struggling to move beyond her usual googly-eyed routine for a more rounded portrayal of a muckraking workaholic — and some of it works quite well. She’s complimented by a poker-faced Billy Bob Thornton, whose deadpan delivery is simultaneously creepy and hilarious. In the role of goofy potential suitor Iain MacKelpie, Martin Freeman finds the ideal counterpoint to Fey’s gravitas. These are distinct, focused character types, whose varying relationships to their surroundings epitomize the confusing nature of this century’s first big war.
But there’s something awfully backwards about a movie almost exclusively told from the perspective of white people in a foreign land. The only Afghan character with real depth, translator Fahim, is played by a white guy. To his credit, Christopher Abbott follows up his fantastic turn in last year’s “James White” with the movie’s only measured, low key performance; buried under a beard, he manages to remain courteous toward his employers even as their culture remains inaccessible to him. (The only other prominent Afghan character, a corrupt political strategist, is played by English-American Alfred Molina.)
Unfortunately, there’s little in the way of subtlety to this dynamic, an issue that regularly plagues Robert Carlock’s script. Despite occasionally vulgar digressions, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” often plays it straight. It’s another curiously straightforward work from the directing duo of Glenn Requa and John Ficarra, following the formulaic con man drama “Focus.” Prior to that, their “Crazy. Stupid. Love” felt like a transitional work as they slowly broke away from the edginess of their earlier days, which included a script to “Bad Santa” and the marvelous gay prison-escape comedy “I Love You, Phillip Morris.”
These wonderfully subversive works made it possible to root for ethically questionable behavior without letting it off the hook. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” however, treats its smarmy characters too gently for it to go down as satire or dark comedy in more general terms. But maybe that’s just the problem with this subject matter, anyway. “The Brink” attempted to pull a “Dr. Strangelove” with the same setting and last only one season. Most other movies about contemporary wars play it straight. So maybe the shortcomings of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” speak more to the intangible nature of the war than the genuine efforts to make this movie work. It just doesn’t get there.
KATE: What’s really unfortunate and strange about “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is how it’s been marketed to the masses, thanks to trailers and commercials that make it look like a laugh-a-minute wartime giggle-fest. That makes it look a lot more unappealing than it actually is. What a pleasure that the actual product instead offers up a mixture of comedy and drama that — while occasionally messy — doesn’t shy away at some wartime truths. At one point, I may have actually cried. (Was it because of an interaction between Fey and Abbott’s characters? Could be.) I am honestly a bit surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and how nice it is to see a true dramedy on the big screen again.
Perhaps I gave it a little bit of leeway because I was so pleased at what it’s actually about, and I suspect I’m being more charitable about tonal swings and bad jokes than you are. My main issue with the film is a different one: It’s just a bit too shaggy for its own good, and its middle act meanders and jogs so much and so often that it’s hard to get a handle on what it’s aiming to do. The film feels about 20 minutes longer than its actual running time, which is never a good thing. For whole chunks of time, I couldn’t quite figure out what the next step in Kim’s journey could possibly be, but I was engaged and charmed enough to want to find out. Something’s working here, at least enough for me to forgive the stuff that doesn’t.
I don’t think it’s precisely Fey’s most ambitious outing to date, though it’s certainly in the running for second place (in my mind, her most ambitious — and most flawed — performance was in “This Is Where I Leave You,” where she aimed for straight drama in a role that didn’t suit her from the get go). It is, however, her best film performance yet, and she smooths out those rough patches and tonal shifts with grace and charm. Instead of going for the big and obvious laughs, Fey and the film find humor in dark spaces and real life drama. Some tough stuff happens in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” and most of it is handled with surprise aplomb. There are some strange missteps on occasion, though, and as you note some of the film’s smarmiest characters (like Molina’s) get off a bit too easily, but I think that speaks to the weirdo normalization of nutty stuff that Fey’s character eventually has to battle back in order to stay sane. For while there, we’re right in her shoes.
ERIC: I would agree that this is Fey’s best big screen performance, but it’s not like the competition for that title is fierce. We know from “30 Rock” just how brilliantly she can convey a self-deprecating attitude while remaining oddly wholesome the whole way through. In “Whiskey,” we finally see the underlying melancholy that accompanies those traits in real life. I’m surprised Fey hasn’t tapped into the talent of filmmakers who could provide the ideal vessel for her funny-sad appeal (Sofia Coppola comes to mind). Will Ferrell may flop hard when he gets serious, but Fey has a subtler way in. Perhaps “This is Where I Leave You” and “Whiskey Tango Foxtrots” are baby steps in the right direction.
Which is what makes the shortcomings of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” so dispiriting. Sure, we see the story from her perspective, but it’s not the most convincing one. During an election year in which the leading Republican candidate’s greatest public foe is a Fox news anchor, and “Spotlight” won best picture, the excitement and scrutiny of big journalistic characters is higher than ever. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” successfully shows how Barker is able to dig into the scene and coax stories out of her sources. But her most significant stories lack substance: We see the newsroom celebrate her footage of an explosion, and the movie’s climax involves her ability to negotiate a hostage rescue, but ultimately she comes across as a careerist above all else. Because the movie inhabits her perspective, it dumbs down everything else — most problematically, the real impact of the war on its locals. I want Fey’s talents to shine through, but she’s trapped in a movie that can’t match them. Again. What’s holding her back?
KATE: Even some of Fey’s marquee roles (like the dismal “Baby Mama,” which I grow more sour on with each passing year) don’t hold up in retrospect, so I’m also hoping that this turn in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” will encourage her to branch out further. Fey and Coppola — now that would be a pairing. It is important, however, to remember that “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” was adapted by Fey’s creative partner, Robert Carlock, who created both “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” with Fey, so I don’t think she necessarily needs to break her bonds and work with entirely new people. It’s compelling to me that she and Carlock, while going whole hog on their comedy mini-empire, still found the time and patience for this film.
What I found most appealing about the film’s approach to Kim’s career is how it works in competition with the film’s other female journalist character, Tanya (played by Margot Robbie). It’s a small-scale story, for sure, set inside a huge arena, but I was intrigued by the way those two characters worked for and against each other, culminating in what’s essentially a pretty low-key office encounter that still lands with a big punch. I don’t think the film is aspiring to say big things about the war or politics or that particular kind of landscape. While it bites into it with fits and starts, it’s much more insular and focused on Kim, who just happens to be in mired in war-time drama at the same time that she’s trying to work out her own life. That she’s a careerist above all else is a selling point for me, because we rarely get to see that kind of female character presented on the big screen, especially in the positive light that Kim is cast.
ERIC: I was thinking about that point over the weekend, when Alicia Vikander won an Oscar for playing the bland, dutiful wife role in “The Danish Girl” — ironically, the cyborg she played in “Ex Machina” had more personality. No matter how immediately effect the #OscarsSoWhite conversation has been for pushing Hollywood toward a more diverse picture, strong female roles remain few and far between. Credit to Fey for at least managing to craft less stereotypical characters, while mocking our lower standards. But I do wish she’d work with some women directors. Hell, I wish everyone worked with more women directors. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is sometimes smart and observant, always well-acted, but it’s pretty clearly directed by a couple of dudes. Maybe the solution to Fey’s movie woes isn’t what she’s doing in front of the camera but who’s behind it.
KATE: You might be on to something here — Fey has yet to star in a movie directed by a woman, although to be fair, she hasn’t starred in that many movies (less than 20). That’s sort of jarring to see spelled out. At one point, she was on deck to star in Nancy Meyers’ “The Intern,” another recent woman-centric movie that placed a big emphasis on its leading lady’s career. Too bad that didn’t pan out, as it could have solved more than a few problems for everyone. Tina, work with some ladies! Or maybe just direct your own.