Friday, 4 March 2016

Reviewed by Paul & Patrick Gibbs
3 out of 5

Starring Tina Fey. Martin Freeman, Margot Robbie, Billy Bob Thornton
Screenplay by Robert Carlock
Based on the Book The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker
Directed by Gleen Ficarra and John Requa
Rated R (profanity, violence, vulgarity, sexual content)

Tina Fey is easily one of Hollywood's most talented comedic performers and writers, but with the exception of her screenplay for Mean Girls, her triumphs have mostly been on the small screen. This is primarily because most of her films have been written by scribes less talented than Fey herself. But with the Afghan war comedy/drama Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Fey is working with a script from her 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt partner Robert Carlock, and while the result isn't the complete home run those series have been, it's a decided step up from Baby Mama or Date Night, and surprises by being considerably more dramatic than the trailers suggest.

Fey stars as Kim Baker, a TV news copywriter who has a chance to become on-air talent in
Afghanistan while all of the top reporters are covering the A-list war, Iraq. Kim seizes the opportunity to get away from a life even Liz Lemon would find pathetic (complete with a bland boyfriend played by Josh Charles), but she's unprepared for the trials of war zone duty. Luckily, she quickly makes a friend in star reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), and develops a strange mutual attraction with a Scottish reporter named Ian Mackelpie (Martin Freeman). She butts head with gruff General Holleneck (Billy Bob Thornton), and catches the eye of a smarmy local official (Alfred Molina). Of course, over time Kim starts to get the hang of Afghanistan, and even develops a near addiction to the excitement of war reporting.

We've seen a glut of "war on terror" films over the past 16 years or so, but most of them haven't been able to find an audience, either because audiences didn't want to see films about it or because the films weren't very good, or both. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn't even close the same level of quality as the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, but we're going to risk angering some by saying we found it's dark, cynical satire more compelling than the rah-rah patriotism of American Sniper, and consider it among the better films to come out of this cycle. That's not to say everything about it works: the film often feels disjointed and meandering, and co-directors  Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus, I Love You Phillip Morris) have a tendency to shot their subjects far too closely much of the time, which has a tendency to create a claustrophobic effect even in outdoor scenes. But there is a lot that does work, from the dark humor to the more dramatic moments to a couple of well-done moments of suspense. The film is based on Kim Barker's non-fiction book The Taliban Shuffle, though it has been fictionalized (you can tell because they've changed "Barker" to "Baker"). Considering the unique presence the new media plays in modern warfare, this is a unique and interesting perspective by which to view the war, and the satirical tone recalls Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, though it's certainly not as ground breaking as that film was.

Fey carries the film easily, which we already knew she could do, but only does she get  a chance to elicit laughs, she's also very strong in the film's more poignant moments, showing yet another side of herself as a performer. It's a welcome change, and here's hoping she gets more chances to branch out into drama. And she's ably supported by the rest of the cast, with Freeman amusing as usual, and Thornton especially fun as the prickly Marine (don't call him a soldier). But the film is actually stolen by Evan Jonigkeit (Toad in X-Men: Days of Future Past) as a young Marine who befriends Kim early on as becomes her first successful war story. Jonigkeit has only a few scenes, but he brings a warm, charisma and most importantly a thoroughly natural believability that adds a depth and power to the film.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (military for WTF) isn't the wack comedy it appears to be in its advertising, and this will be understandably offputting to some. But if you're willing to give it a chance, it's an engaging and effective film.

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