As entertainment fans, we’ve appreciated Tina Fey’s strengths as a writer and comedian for over a decade now. She has asserted herself as the smartest girl in the room who served SNL very well during their better years, and also gave the world Mean Girls in the process. But as an actress, Fey has really come into her own these past couple years, and her latest film, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, marks a real turning point for her career.
With my limited exposure to her work on 30 Rock (and I still haven’t seen Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, so throw your rocks accordingly), it was 2014’s This is Where I Leave You that truly demonstrated Fey’s dramatic range to me, and her work as the co-lead opposite Amy Poehler in December’s Sisters proved she could play well against type. And with the newest film from directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris, Crazy, Stupid, Love., Focus), she finds a suits her talents well while also letting her expand into more adult, and appropriately edgy, material. We get to see both her unexpectedly strong acting suits blossom even further, and though she intentionally doesn’t disappear into the role of Kim Baker — a 40-something journalist who discovers herself from 2006-2008 covering the Afghanistan war on the frontlines — she makes the role wholly her own, which fits in line with the familiar-but-important feminist message at the heart of this new dramedy.
At times, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot runs the risk of becoming Eat, Pray, Report. Based on Kim Barker’s acclaimed 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Note: The Pakistan segments didn’t make the transition from page-to-screen, it would seem), the film always runs the risk of playing things too soft or cute. The trailers suggested as much, and there are certainly more than a few Hollywood-ized depictions of war seen throughout the running time. But thankfully the screenplay, written by Fey’s fellow Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt creator Robert Carlock, never forgets about the dangers surrounding the main character, and the opposition she’ll have to face, in such a hazardous terrain. This isn’t a vacation for Baker, she and we are made perfectly clear. But at the same time, that also doesn’t mean she can’t have fun under the desert sun either.
Oh yes, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot most certainly lives up to the first part of its title. Several drinks are shared between Fey and her supporting cast, including Margot Robbie as a fellow war correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (another solid performance) and Martin Freeman as freelance photographer and Scottish bad-boy Iain MacKelpie (can the man do any wrong?). There are more-than-a-few mornings where Kim is shown wrestling a bad hangover or puking the alcohol out of her system, and once again, it’s fun to see Fey get to live in the moment on-screen.
Her Baker is a self-made, forward-thinking, independent woman that can prove herself on the battlefront without having them get overstated throughout the film. The challenges she faces as a woman in this war-torn area are always stressed upon, but they feel real and urgent and, therefore, never feel overstated. She also constantly establishes herself as a progressive, hard-hitting woman without any forced long-winded speeches or heavy-handed messages. Rather, we see her grow as a reporter and person rather than get told as much (and this where the aforementioned Julia Roberts movie failed so often), and we get to live her journey with her rather than have it told to us explicitly. It’s very refreshing, in that sense.
But at times, it does feel like a feminist piece first, a drama second and a comedy third. And that’s what holds Whiskey Tango Foxtrot back the most: its lack of consistent tone. Though there’s a lot happening here and a lot of different emotions felt, Ficarra and Requa never quite find the right balance. It feels largely uneven, especially as it gets heavier in the last act, and it often causes the comedy to start-and-stop in the process. Which is a shame, because the laughs are often natural and well-placed when found. There are some taboo subjects (a little more on that later), but Whiskey handles a lot of its sensitive subjects with confidence and great care, and knows how to get its point across without having to sacrifice any of its integrity in the process. The comedy helps with this a lot whenever it comes around.
The commentary here isn’t revolutionary by any means. But with that said, it’s done well and it comes naturally within the plot, so it works. It’s not a conversation starter; it’s just keeps the conversation going. Although there’s already been some controversy found in casting its two Afghan characters, Fahim Ahmadzai and Ali Massoud, as Eastern European/Portuguese Christopher Abbott and half-Spanish/half-Italian Alfred Molina, respectively. I’m not going to delve into the implications of this, but rather note that both are very good in their roles, even downright excellent at times. Abbott is practically unrecognizable in his role, bringing a careful wit and a great sensitivity to his performance that continues to demonstrate his young acting talents. Seriously, between this, James White and his tenure on Girls, this guy is proving himself to be one of the brightest up-and-coming talents we have working today. And Molina is good as always in his equal parts inviting and slimy role, hidden behind a lusciously thick beard and commanding a challengingly thick accent with ease.
The ultimate lack of urgency and the familiarity of Baker/Barker’s upswing may not end up making it a must-see, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a more-than-enjoyable dramatic romp — one that holds itself well with a mature, grace and wit that keeps it engaging and investing throughout. It intentionally does quite have the polish of the directors’ past films, but it proves their range and depth as filmmakers. And it provides another win for producers Lorne Michaels and Fey, alongside Ian Bryce. Much like Kim, it most certainly holds its own, and thankfully it doesn’t hide in the trenches. It comes out guns a-blazing.