Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Well Our Brand is Crisis didn’t do much for everyone involved, but I’m SURE it will work better when you do it with Tina Fey! What, that’s not enough? Okay… let’s make it war film too!! Movies about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (especially comedies) are not easy endeavors for anyone to undertake, but we have gotten some good films along the way such as The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Messenger, and Brothers just to name a few. With this being somewhat of biopic of a journalist who spent several years in the country, it definitely has an interesting premise and a good excuse to get a strong message across as it’s from the point of view of someone whose job it is to find answers and tell the world about what’s really going on. Will this be a successful mix between a talented comedian and a topical subject, or is this a mash up that was not meant to be? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the story of Kim Baker (Tina Fey) who works for a news organization and volunteers to go to Afghanistan as a war correspondent as she’s found herself in a rut in her life. When she gets to Afghanistan (Kabul specifically) she meets a colorful cast of journos, photographers, and other personal that she will be sharing a home with for the next couple of years as she slowly grows to appreciate the country for what it has to offer and starts to grow accustom to the risks and dangers of being a reporter in this environment. Her newfound friends include a guide Fahim Ahmadza (Christopher Abbott), the only other female journalist (at least the only one we see) at the place that Kim is staying named Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and a Scottish photographer named Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) who quickly grows attached to the new member of their little club. Along the way, she’ll have to deal with the US military, primarily through General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), and with the a high ranking official in the Afghani government Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina) in order to get the stories she needs to keep the war relevant to the news organization she works for and to keep her from being reassigned to another desk job. Will she be able to hack it as a journalist in this country that doesn’t look too kindly on Western intervention? Will she find what she’s looking for in the Middle East, or will she get sucked into this world and lose touch with what’s waiting for her back home? This isn’t going to be TOO offensive, right?
For an entire hour, this movie is an uninteresting and inconsequential slog of half-baked ideas, trivial plot points, unfunny jokes, and only the barest semblance of a point with no real bite or insight to justify how boring the whole thing is. Then something happens. While the ending itself is kinda weak, the forty minutes preceding it (starting right at the hour mark) are actually very interesting and the film film was starting to give me flashbacks to something like Spotlight. It wasn’t at THAT level, but it was surprising for a movie that was this tedious to suddenly have focus and intrigue. It brings to mind something like Williams Street’s Too Many Cooks sketch where it’s gags and shenanigans for the most part that is ultimately leading to some sort of point; only instead of being delightfully twisted, this is just a mediocre comedy that realizes too late that there’s an interesting story to be told here.
So why doesn’t the first hour of this movie work? I think the biggest reason is that Kim Baker just isn’t all that interesting of a character and she herself isn’t all that interested in being in Afghanistan in the first place which makes it hard to connect with her or her struggles. It’s so much of the “white woman is befuddled by STRANGE new culture” cliché to the point that I was trying REALLY hard to see it as a satire (considering where they decided to take the fish out of water story) but I just couldn’t find anything to sink my teeth into. There’ so very little here that’s of consequence and the scenes that seem to be ABOUT the war carry so little weight to Kim’s overall growth of a character that it’s just a meaningless slog from mediocre set piece to mediocre set piece. The movie is based on a memoir which I guess accounts for the episodic feel of the movie (condense the book into its best moments and film it) but without a strong theme to tie everything together, you might as well be watching vignettes for a web series instead of a feature film. The thing is that movies composed of unrelated pieces that don’t (or barely) tie into a bigger narrative can work, but it’s not as easy to pull off considering how easy it is for such a film to ultimately be about nothing consequential. This is a film about Kim Baker’s eventual transformation from a brain dead working stiff coasting through life into someone who has had REAL experiences and has taken the kind of risks that makes people feel alive and even does some real journalism in the process, with the ultimate question being whether or not she likes the new person that she’s become. So the movie WANTS to be about something and have a consistent theme, but then doesn’t follow through on that by having the character go through neigh unrelated events from scene to scene. The movie didn’t have enough focus or consistency to be a true character study and yet was burdened by its premise which kept the episodic format from reaching its true potential by bringing some genuine variety to each segment so that they can stand on their own. Instead, the movie is a bunch of puzzle pieces that intend to come together to form a portrait of this character, but then about half the pieces don’t fit and all you’re left with is a frustrating mess.
Even if we look at the episodes individually to examine them as smaller stories in their own right, they aren’t all that interesting and frankly aren’t as flattering to Kim as the movie seems to think they are. There’s a firefight early one (probably her first week in Kabul) and she ignores orders from everyone there to do something completely dangerous for herself and others. She ignores her Afghani co-worker Fahim (not sure his exact title in the movie) who tells her to stay in the car when it’s under fire, and then she hovers over soldiers who are trying to neutralize the threats; getting in their way and being a target that they need to protect. Hell, one of her big breaks is when she discovers that the women of this one village were blowing up a well the military installed (the reason being that they liked walking to the river as it let them chat with each other away from the men), and yet this just drops in her lap. She doesn’t do any investigating or ask any questions. The women just pull her aside and tell her everything. Had this movie been more about her being an observer to the War on Terror and we got LOTS of these scenes, then this dynamic could have worked. Instead, it’s all about Tina Fey’s character, so having her either be obstructionist or passive throughout the movie doesn’t lend itself to the audience endearing themselves to her.
Now to be fair, the movie does get markedly better after the hour mark. It’s almost on the dot when something BIG happens involving Margot Robbie’s character and things just get better from there. The film drops the pretentions of being a comedy for the most part (a definite plus considering how poor the humor was overall) and Kim actually comes into her own as a legitimately serious journalist instead of the plucky woman who’s stumbling her way through life and does very little journalism of note. This is also a movie that equates “good journalism” with “stupidly dangerous” which COULD have been a point in the movies favor it that was a message they were trying to impart but, like the fish out of water elements, it never develops into anything meaningful. That last act though has Kim at her most competent and the movie finally gives us a reason to care about the events on screen because Kim is actually engaged in what she’s doing. It’s amazing just how much better the movie gets once it drops the shtick and antics to instead be interesting. Another point in its favor is that the acting is pretty strong across the board. Despite not liking her character through much of this, Tina Fey does a great job in the role and pulls of the more dramatic scenes at the end with aplomb. Margot Robbie and Martin Freeman equip themselves well to the material, the former playing up her sexual inhibition while proving herself to be the best, and the latter being more of a boor who’s tactless façade eventually falls away to reveal a competent photojournalist and decent enough guy. Also, I love Billy Bob Thornton in anything, even when he’s playing against type here as someone who’s NOT a sleazy scumbag.
There is however an elephant in the room in regards to casting that needs to be addressed. The two actors that are controversially cast in here are Alfred Molina as Ali Massoud Sadiq and Christopher Abbott as Fahim Ahmadzai who are both white actors playing Afghani characters. Now I’ll admit straight up that I had no idea what Alfred Molina’s ethnicity was until I was looking up details on this movie, and honestly thought he was at least partly of Middle Eastern descent. Turns out the dude is European through and through (Italian and Spanish) so while I understand the frustrations with him playing an Afghani character, I don’t think I have much of a leg to stand on considering that I thought he was appropriate for the role while I was watching it. You SHOULD already be listening to other people than just me (or other white guys) when it comes to white-washing in Hollywood, but in this case I feel a lack of authority here, more so than usual. The other guy though? Christopher Abbott? Yeah, I don’t know him so FUCK THAT GUY!! Okay, that’s a bit much. I actually REALLY liked the character he played in this who felt like the grounding influence the movie needed. He’s not a cartoon character like the other reporters in the hostile, and he’s also not some clichéd fundamentalist Muslim who is baffled by Americans and Western culture (as some of the background characters in this tend to be). He’s endearing as a helping hand for Tina Fey (he is getting paid to do that so we aren’t going into magical mystical ethnic guy territory in my opinion) and brings thematic resonance to the material when he calls her when she’s being careless and could have gotten someone hurt. Would Christopher Abbott’s performance been better than what they would have gotten from an Afghani actor? I have no idea, but I’ll tell you this much. Hollywood didn’t take a risk casting an Egyptian to play Horus in Gods of Egypt even though I’m sure ANYONE else would have been better than Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. They took a risk on casting Johnny Storm black in the new Fantastic Four movie, but that was met with virulent outrage despite Michael B Jordan being a great actor. Bottom line is that casting white people in non-white roles is a problem, even if the performance is great.
In the end, I’m reminded of something like Rock the Kasbah which suffered from some of the same issues (unfocused narrative and the entire plot concentrated in the back half), but I look much more favorably on that movie because I found it funny, while this was, at best, mildly amusing. Then again, humor is very subjective, so while it didn’t work for me it might work for others. A solid second half with a shaky first half and some bone headed casting leaves me felling… okay about it. Nothing great and definitely nothing you have to see at the theater, but it does have its moments and Tina Fey does prover herself to be quite capable in a role that doesn’t require her to be goofy or play it big. Give a shot when it gets a home release, but it’s woefully half-baked for a movie that the potential to be so much more.
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