Thursday, 2 June 2016

Movie Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)



Well, after looking at the lion’s share of films about war and films about journalism over the past year and a half, I wasn’t exactly expecting to see one so soon that would combine the two together. Now I’m just hoping for a crossover between films about sub-par opera singers, films about evil witches and films about terrorist plots in Europe. Maybe I’m the only one who wants to see Gerard Butler kill the Snow Queen through the power of bad singing, but I still don’t doubt a nearby announcement for the release of The Phantom Of The Opera 2. Anyway, tangent: I’m here to discuss Tina Fey, not the dregs of my fanfiction folder. Tina has essentially become this generation’s Meg Ryan, the actor that is meant to represent the average generally dissatisfied older woman. The main difference between the two being that Ryan gave us Sleepless In Seattle and Kate & Leopold, and Fey has so far given us films like Mean Girls and even Sisters from earlier this year; Ryan made chick flicks, Fey makes real flicks. Far as I’m concerned, at any rate. So, time to dip into that pool again with the latest of Fey’s filmography. This is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.


The plot: Needing a change in her career prospects, journalist Kim Baker (Tina Fey) takes up a post as a war correspondent in Afghanistan covering the War On Terror. While sharing a domicile with other journalists like Australian correspondent Tanya (Margot Robbie) and Scottish freelance photographer Iain (Martin Freeman), her assignments and constant berating from Marine commander Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) may lead Kim to a new lease on life… for a certain cost.

This is probably the most solid all-round cast I’ve seen on screen in months, and no that isn’t just because my cinematic input has dropped over the last few weeks. Fey is in type-cast mode here as the older career woman who needs a change in her life, but I’m not really in a position to argue about the shortcomings of typecasting this time around. I mean, these situations happen for a reason, usually because the actor in question is just really damn good at that particular role and this is no exception as she keeps up with her recent track record for bubbling-under-the-surface feminism and hard-nosed determination. Robbie is basically here to serve as the yin for Fey’s yang, and while her character arc just seems to be dropped by film’s end, she works quite nicely opposite Fey. Freeman is just solid gold as the Scottish rogue, managing to show a certain boisterous charm that makes his very… I don’t know how else to describe it other than natural-sounding sexual attitudes ring true in the most unlikely of ways. Christopher Abbott works wonders as Fahim, almost this older brother figure for Fey’s character, Thornton flexes some serious comedic muscle as the deadpan Marine General and Alfred Molina might be the weaker link in this film’s chain, given how much he is trying his best at scenery stealing and not doing that great a job at it, but he at least makes for a decent target for Fey to fire off at in a few scenes.

WTF is one in a long, long history of SNL films, bonus points for having Lorne Michaels himself as a producer. Now, when I say ‘SNL films’, I don’t strictly mean films based on established SNL characters like Wayne’s World or, gods help you, A Night At The Roxbury; I mean more in terms of SNL alumni, particularly Tina Fey in recent years with films like Mean Girls and Baby Mama. I explicitly bring up this connection to the NBC evening block because the film’s writer, Robert Carlock, has also worked with Tina Fey extensively in the past on 30 Rock. This marks his first foray into feature-length productions and, honestly, you can tell from the pacing of the film itself. It’s extremely episodic, to the point where it genuinely feels like scenes are being paraded in front of the audience for little reason other than the sake of completion. There’s no real flow to the sequence of events, something seriously not helped by how this film starts out. It begins three years into the story, with Kim already working in Afghanistan, and then for reasons I cannot ascertain, it kicks back to the beginning to start the film properly. I want to make a joke about how the film’s title must largely be in reference to that introduction, but I’d rather save the lamer punches for the films that deserve them. As I’m about to get into, this isn’t one of those films.

A typical trope of modern-day war films, something I discussed when looking at the genre on this blog before, is emphasizing how desensitizing an experience going into war is. After spending enough time witnessing death and brutality every day on the front line, it’s only natural for the human mind to start going numb to everything. There’s a lot of that in this film as well, only it is focused on the war reporters as opposed to the soldiers/Marines/what have you. Insert joke about the similarity of shooting guns and shooting cameras here. The main household for the foreign reporters in Afghanistan is depicted as what is essentially a college dorm room where the party never stops. The hookahs are always loaded, A Tribe Called Quest and House Of Pain on the stereo, and drunken hook-ups happen with alarming regularity. But much like the abyssal stare of the soldiers, this more hedonistic escapism approach still feels warranted. Before too long of reporting on rising mortalities due to internal conflicts and women who intentionally sabotage their own town’s water supply (trust me, it sounds a lot more sexist than it actually is, hence why I’m not railing against it this time around), you start to believe in nothing, in yourself, in nothing at all and need some Georgi Porgi and cranberry to make life rest a little easier.

Under normal circumstances, the attitudes of the journalistic characters would veer straight into unlikeable, considering how Kim in particular winds up just running through people to find her next scoop. However, this is an occasion where self-awareness actually does help things sit a lot easier with the audience. The comparisons between the life as a reporter in those conditions and substance abuse may sound a bit off, and considering this is the same guy who wrote the ultimate exercise in surreality that was Sandwich Day that’s not exactly surprising. But the mentality behind both works along a similar path: The desperation to find your next score, if for no other reason than to maintain the lifestyle that you’re in while scoring, and the eventual come down that can make you question how you ended up in said lifestyle in the first place. Kim is portrayed as entering the Afghanistan situation out of a general discomfort with her regular life, again in keeping with the Tina Fey staple character, and she finds newfound purpose in her new circumstances. She even refers to the Kabubble, a slang term used for the domicile Kim and the other journalists reside in Afghanistan, as her home when describing needing to return to the U.S and seems pretty adamant about sticking around. This is in spite of the lunacy that surrounds her, both inside and outside the Kabubble, and how it does crack down on her after a while. I might be stretching for an analogy here, but I remember first listening to Atmosphere’s Your Glass House, a song about a woman suffering from a hangover, and how it was meant to be an allegory for the War In Iraq and how it affected the Bush presidency. Now, for years, I honestly couldn’t get my head around how that could honestly be the case, setting off my pretence alarms periodically ever since. After watching this film, and seeing how Tina Fey as Kim is affected by the events around her and how she is shown waking up every morning, I think I’m beginning to understand that idea a little better.

All in all, I am once again taken aback at the remarkably deep and solid writing at place here. Taking the frame of reference most often used for films about soldiers and shifting it towards the journalists alongside them, the impressively consistent actors carry out one of the more nuanced takes on warfare I’ve seen in recent years. Given how war-time stories are often a go-to for studio hacks out there, seeing something like this is definitely refreshing. It ranks higher than Concussion, as this managed to find some new ground in a fairly well-trodden genre. That, and Iain easily secures a place for one of the most entertaining characters in film this year. However, as an overall production, I prefer the more direct plot progression and technical wizardry behind The Jungle Book to the episodic and thoughtful approach here.

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