Thursday, March 10, 2016

Movie Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Directed by: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa.
Written by: Robert Carlock based on the book by Kim Barker.
Starring: Tina Fey (Kim Baker), Margot Robbie (Tanya Vanderpoel), Martin Freeman (Iain MacKelpie), Alfred Molina (Ali Massoud Sadiq), Christopher Abbott  (Fahim Ahmadzai), Billy Bob Thornton (General Hollanek), Nicholas Braun (Tall Brian), Stephen Peacocke (Nic), Sheila Vand (Shakira Khar), Evan Jonigkeit (Specialist Coughlin), Fahim Anwar (Jaweed), Josh Charles (Chris), Cherry Jones (Geri Taub).

As a TV actress, few people in recent memory have had as much success as Tina. On 30 Rock, as creator of the show, she was able to craft her Liz Lemon to her strong suit – more often than not being the normal center of a crazy show, who wasn’t always quite so normal. She was the straight woman for the likes of Tracey Morgan, Alec Baldwin and Jane Krakowski on that show – but often, she was as funny, if not funnier than any of them. She was an everywoman, but also her own specific character – which was tricky, but she pulled it off seemingly effortlessly. As a movie actress, Fey has struggled a lot more to find the right roles for her. Even on TV, she struggles a little bit outside her comfort zone – her Marcia Clarke on the otherwise wonderful Fey created The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt didn’t work – and looks downright cruel now in light of what Sarah Paulsen is doing in the wonderful The People vs. O.J. Simpson.

Part of this is undeniably because, apart from Mean Girls, she hasn’t written any of her movies – and the old boys club of Hollywood doesn’t really know what to do with someone like Fey – who exudes humor and intelligence, whose persona is that of a career woman over 40 – who isn’t necessarily looking for someone to settle down with. Romantic comedy plots are built around women like Fey recognizing that she needs to kick back and relax – get out of the office, and just meet a nice man and settle down to domestic bliss – which is the antithesis to Fey’s persona. I’ve enjoyed some of her movies to be sure – she is a gifted comedic actress, yet she has yet to have a role that rivals Liz Lemon.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is, it must be said, also not nearly as good as 30 Rock – but it is her first movie role that seems to have been tailored specifically for Fey, and yet also allows her to stretch a little in terms of crossing that magical divide into drama. In the film, Fey plays Kim Baker, a 40 something reporter living in New York, who has a very unglamorous of writing copy for news anchors to deliver. It’s a comfy job – but Baker is unhappy. She’s unmarried, but does have a boyfriend (Josh Charles – who is becoming the go to for seemingly nice guy boyfriends/husbands/afterthoughts in movies like this) – but that doesn’t seem to bother her much. But she’s stuck. It’s 2003, and the network is looking for volunteers to head over to Kabul, Afghanistan to cover the war that is already becoming an afterthought in the wake of Iraq. She gets there – and has no real idea what she’s doing. She fumbles and stumbles for a bit – and then finds her bearings. Not only is she good at this job – she loves it, and starts getting addicted to adrenaline of being in a warzone. What she needs though are good stories – and there is a numbing sameness in this war that makes them hard to find.

Other characters enter her bubble – or “Kabubble” as they say in the movie. There’s Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), a fellow female journalist, who is addicted to life well before Kim ever sets foot in Afghanistan. She helps show Kim the ropes – but she is even more career centrist than Kim is. Of course, there has to be a love interest – and that’s Martin Freeman’s Iain MacKelpie – a Scottish photographer, who of course is an asshole at first, before revealing his more human side. There’s a wonderful supporting turn by Billy Bob Thornton as a deadpan general – which continues to show just how good Thornton is at comedy.

Of course, we also have to mention the whitewashing that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does. There are basically only two major roles for Afghans in the film – the broad role of the corrupt Attorney General with a crush on Kim and the sympathetic role of Baker’s guide/translator Fahim, who she grows genuinely close to. The filmmakers cast two gifted actors in those roles – Alfred Molina has a lot of fun as the Attorney General, delivering the type broad comedic performance that you hire Alfred Molina to give – fake beard and all. And Christopher Abbott, so good in last year’s James White, finds some quietly touching moments in his performance of the soft spoken Fahim – who understands everything, and genuinely cares about Baker. Both are fine performances – but both are given to non-Afghan, even non-Arab actors. It’s a source of continual depression on my part that even the few Hollywood movies that have good roles for non-white actors, continually cast white actors in those roles anyway. I know the filmmakers said they searched, and cast the best actors available – and again, both Molina and Abbott are fine in the film, but come on. Michael Fassbender may be the best actor available, but I still wouldn’t cast him to play Malcolm X.

The whitewashing in a problem in the movie to be sure, but not a fatal one. Overall, the film works best when it’s focused on Baker anyway – moving from scared to confident to risk taking to stupid risk taking, before she smartly pulls back. It’s a portrait of the type of women we do not see often enough in American movies. Yes, there is a love interest in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – but that relationship hardly defines Baker – and it’s not something that she’s willing to sacrifice her career for. It’s a wonderful showcase for Fey – particularly in the way that it eases her character into those changes. It starts off very much like a Tina Fey comedy, and then becomes more and more dramatic as it moves along – and Fey holds it together the whole time. It’s hardly a great movie – I’m not sure it has anything all that new to add to conversation, either about journalism or the wars in Afghanistan – but it’s a solid movie – and hopefully represents the start of a new phase in Fey’s movie career. She’s surely capable of it.

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