Sunday, March 6, 2016

"Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"

 3 / 5 

If Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn't an entirely satisfying or quite fully successful movie, it gets extra consideration for being everything you would suspect it isn't: a considered drama tinged with humor, an honest attempt to get inside the seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan, a war that is wearily criticized during the movie as having "chronic same-shit-different-day-itis."

What does that mean to the people who are on the ground fighting, or the journalists covering the conflict?  They're still there, doing their jobs, and everyone is tired of it, including them.

One of them is broadcast reporter Kim Barker, who is played by Tina Fey in a performance that starts out right in her sardonic, smirking comfort zone and slowly pushes her -- and us -- out of it to the point that the biggest surprise of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the realization that Fey is a good actress, that she creates a character with depth and nuance, someone whose convictions and fate prove interesting to watch.

Fey's achievement is all the more impressive because Whiskey Tango Foxtrot wavers too much for its own good, never quite settling on whether it wants to be a character-driven comedy, a satire on the state of the news business, a political commentary about the insanity of this particular war, or a sweet wartime romance about professionals doing their jobs in harsh environments.

Two previous movies, in particular, send echoes of familiarity through Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: the criminally underrated and massively entertaining Under Fire, about journalists in a war zone facing ethical and romantic dilemmas; and James L. Brooks's 1987 Broadcast News, in which the private and personal lives of journalists collided.

They're more than echoes, really.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot owes them both a huge debt, particularly in the ways it observes journalists growing restless, crossing ethical lines in order to speed things along and make their lives more interesting.  From the perspective of both soldiers and journalists, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is most interesting for the way it shows the dull sameness of life in what Barker refers to as the "Kabubble," the heightened reality of Kabul, which could be as intriguing as setting as, say, Casablanca if only everyone -- Afghans, warriors, civilians -- weren't so weary of a war no one wanted, or, for that matter, wants.

Grafting Fey's sly cultural commentaries on to the complex story proves difficult, so after the first few fish-out-of-water moments, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot wisely gives up on the effort.  There are frequent references to the way average-looking people become more attractive in the thick of war, a commentary that's funny the first time and grows weirdly uncomfortable the more frequently it's presented.  It comes in to play as Barker tries to shoo away the unwanted advances of her towering bodyguard and becomes involved with an impish photographer (Martin Freeman), much to the surprise of one of the only other women in her group, a statuesque blonde (Margot Robbie) who's already been in Kabul too long.

As played by Fey, Barker recalls the assertive-yet-quirky producer Jane Craig, played by Holly Hunter in Broadcast News -- and there are moments when another Brooks character, Mary Richards, comes to mind, particularly as Fey tries to deal with the overtly sexual come-ons of a high-level Afghan politician (Alfred Molina) and to prove her capability to a Marine general (Billy Bob Thornton).

This is a lot for any film to juggle, and it's more than Whiskey Tango Foxtrot can take on.  Though Freeman and Robbie are strong support, the movie suffers by trying to be Fey's show, leaning toward the comedic when it should embrace the drama, and showcasing Fey's impressive acting chops just when it needs to be focusing on other characters.

Despite being impressively mature in a film landscape that does not generally favor either complexity or intelligence, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot never quite finds its focus or voice, and though its grown-up view of the world is a welcome change of pace, it's likely to leave most audiences mumbling a less polite version of its title acronym.

Viewed March 5, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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