A film review by Craig J. Koban March 25, 2016


2016, R, 112 mins.


Tina Fey as Kim Barker  /  Christopher Abbott as Fahim Ahmadzai  /  Margot Robbie as Tanya  /  Martin Freeman as Iain MacKelpie  /  Alfred Molina as Ali Massoud Sadiq  /  Josh Charles as Chris  /  Nicholas Braun as Tall Brian  /  Evan Jonigkeit as Coughlin

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, based on the book by Kim Barker

The new fact-based Afghanistan wartime dramedy WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (military slang for WTF?) does something that most other examples of this genre have seemingly failed to do: It paints a fairly compelling and refreshing portrait of a strong-willed and career focused woman on a journey of self-discovery in combat-ravaged countries.  The film tells its ground zero story of the conflict from her perspective.  That’s so decidedly (and unfairly) rare for films like this.  Even though WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT doesn’t dig as deeply into the sheer ludicrousness of war and the problematic manner that the media oftentimes covers it, the film’s feminist prerogative – which stands in stark contrast to the otherwise male dominated accoutrements of the genre – is what won me over in a big way. 

The film is loosely based on the wonderfully titled memoir THE TALIBAN SHUFFLE: STRANGE DAYS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN by Chicago Tribune war-zone journalist Kim Barker, released in 2011.  Slight name changes were made (the film’s character is Kim Baker) and her occupation was also altered in the film to that of a TV news correspondent, but the overall story churns out a fairly compelling fish-out-of-water yarn about an in-over-her-head media woman that tries to acclimatize herself to covering a fairly messy situation in Afghanistan (something that the media was growing less interested in doing during the mid-2000’s, especially when the second Iraq War was breaking out, which made for “sexier” coverage).  WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT will draw inevitable parallels to M.A.S.H. in the manner it uses black, gallows humor to help mask the otherwise solemnity of a bloody and senseless war, and it also bares a bit of a fleeting resemblance to last year’s ROCK THE KASBAH, another comedy set within the Afghanistan conflict.  Even when WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT misses its own intended marks on multiple occasions, it nevertheless scores more winning bullseyes throughout. 



The film opens in 2003, during which time the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan was abruptly declared as “won.”  The ever-escalating conflict in Iraq is taking a lion’s share of media attention, leaving multiple news agencies desperate to find willing reporters to journey to Afghanistan to cover a war that the general public seems no longer interested in.  Enter fortysomething news writer Kim Baker (a thoroughly commanding and headstrong Tina Fey) that has grown utterly despondent with her low-respect job of covering disinteresting stories behind a desk cubicle.  Much to the chagrin of her boyfriend, Kim agrees to take the job of a war correspondent in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, which initially seems like an exciting new chapter in her occupational life.  She learns quickly upon leaving the airport, though, that acclimatizing to her new foreign home will be stressful, largely because she’s a woman that has to do a rather public job in a nation that has widespread gender discrimination. 

Kim feels downtrodden right from the get-go: She’s mostly unfamiliar with local customs and practices, and her living quarters for the next several months is essentially a small, dirt covered room without a bathroom and just a single, uncomfortable mattress.  She’s aided early on in her stay by a kind and protective “fixer” Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) and a very well established Australian correspondent, Tanya Vanderpoel (the unendingly photogenic and charming Margot Robbie), who teaches her the ropes of living and working in Afghanistan.  She also gains some unlikely friends in the form of American Marine Commander General Hollonak (a sly Billy Bob Thornton) and Irish photojournalist Iain MacKelpie (the wonderful Martin Freeman), someone that relishes in making politically incorrect platitudes during the most inopportune times.  Kim becomes rather adept at her job of interviewing soldiers and video taping hostile encounters, and just when she feels like she’s really accomplishing something she begins to feel the lack of support from her network, which sees no future in future coverage in Afghanistan.   

The film’s directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (both of whom previously made the wonderful romcom CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE), seem to have an endlessly confident grasp of the material here and its multiple tones.  The overall dichotomy in WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT between sidesplitting comedy and soulful drama is, for the most part, well articulated by them throughout.  Trying to find warmth and humor in any war-themed film is a thorny task, to be sure, but Ficarra and Requa are great at juggling the story’s socio-political war commentary with the strange nightly shenanigans of the microcosm of the reporters' living spaces and the camaraderie they share.  In many ways, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT becomes enthralling for examining how stressed out and deeply uncertain news men and women develop, as only they know how, some semblance of shared occupational and personal normalcy in a strange land amidst potentially dangerous circumstances.  At the heart of it all is Kim’s journey, which forces her deal with the constant stream of war zone chaos (and the sheer addictive adrenaline it unleashes in her) while also yearning to be taken seriously in a country that admonishes her gender and nationality, not to mention military forces that consider her a nuisance.   

Tiny Fey is as pitch perfectly cast as they come here.  She has always been a remarkably shrewd writer that balances comedic absurdity with a sobering satiric underbite (TV shows like 30 ROCK and films like MEAN GIRLS more than reveal just that) and as a performer she can traverse between broad farcical laughs and sweet sentimentality with the best of them.  Fey’s impeccable deadpan timing is utilized to maximum effect in WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, which frequently elevates some of the script’s (penned by 30 ROCK alumni Robert Carlock) more perfunctory exchanges and moments.  Most importantly, she finds ample relatable vulnerability in Kim and is able to typify her daily grind of staying relevant (and keeping her sanity) while her superiors grow increasingly less supportive of her by the day.  Many strong supporting performances flank her, especially the criminally underrated Margo Robbie (a finely attuned actress that doesn’t nearly get as much attention drawn towards her thespian skills as much as she does her looks) and Martin Freeman, who has a field day playing a devilishly vulgar chatterbox that’s hard to hate despite his unsavory verbal zingers.   

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT suffers from some strange creative choices that are, at times, quite distracting.  Like, for instance, its insistence of casting non-Afghan actors in key roles.  Even though Christopher Abbot is rather wonderful in his role as Kim’s guide, interpreter, and confidant, the Connecticut-born actor is about as racially appropriate for the role as I am.  More obtrusively inappropriate is Alfred Molina (a British Actor) playing the Afghan Prime Minister that develops a lusty appetite for Kim in more than professional ways.  He brings a boisterous energy to the role that’s been otherwise whitewashed by his casting.  It also could be said that, as a work of teeth clenched political satire, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is a bit too reticent in attacking its subject matter than it should be.  Beyond thematic sermons of “war is insanely dangerous and hellish” and commenting on how modern news agencies sometimes ignore stories for ratings, the script never digs as deep or as contemplatively as it thinks it does at times. 

Still, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is less about the war in Afghanistan, per se, as it's more about the main female character that populates it…and I’m very okay with that.  War-themed films – regardless of tone and narrative – have always been largely macho and sometimes misogynistic affairs that lack a credible and worthwhile presence of women in them.  And how ultimately refreshing is it that WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT concentrates and shines a light on the significant contributions of female journalists in hazardous war zones?  Their stories are largely silenced and untold in these genre efforts, which is what makes WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT – despite some qualitative hiccups – stand proudly on its own two feet apart from the pack.

  H O M E