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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
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by Jaycie

"Sierra Tango Foxtrot Uniform."
2 stars

In the time I had to kill before the showing of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I went to the bookstore across from the cinema and read The Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker's memoir of her time spent as a correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book is an eye-opening account not only of her experiences as a war reporter, but of the myriad cultural and political complications that prevent both countries from succeeding. That Tina Fey thought she was the ideal person to bring Barker's story to film is why the terrorists wish death on America.

Fey, pulling double duty as WTF's star and producer, and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are all in way over their heads with this material. She is an alumnus and frequent visiting lecturer of NBC's prime-time comedy lineup; they are the men whose most intellectually challenging effort thus far has been Focus. In the hands of, say, Robin Wright and Kathryn Bigelow, WTF may have gotten the respect it deserves. Without that respect, this movie has no real reason for being.

Fey plays Kim Baker (why not Barker? Was the extra R too hard to pronounce?), a TV news copywriter who accepts an assignment as a correspondent in Kabul because why not. She quickly develops a kick for putting herself in danger for the sake of excellent footage; unfortunately, we only get a few hints of this kick amid constant, repetitive scenes of her fellow Western journalists partying it up in their dorm and evaluating each other's sex appeal. This includes British reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), who is exactly what you'd imagine Margot Robbie as a foreign correspondent to be like. Soon enough, after a few dramatic encounters with Afghan society and a higher number of hangovers, Kim staggers into bed with Scottish photographer Iain McKelpie (Martin Freeman), who later becomes the subject of a plot point that drastically overestimates the ability of journalists to persuade generals. As in, it would never happen. Ever.

Barker's book certainly discusses the partying and the sex, but it's secondary to her fascination with the country and her frustration that the Iraq War is sucking up all the media oxygen. WTF is at its strongest when it chooses to show examples of either, most notably in its engrossing opening flashback. Yet time and time again, Ficarra and Requa skip opportunities to show more of this. We get to see the opening "pleasantries" of Kim's interview with an Afghan warlord, but none of the interview itself; we hear her describe what a group of burqa-clad villagers tell her about their water-gathering practices, but we don't hear them doing the telling. While Afghanistan is the most important character in the book, Kim Baker is the most important character in the movie, and the movie suffers tremendously for it. If you want to see a single female journalist trying to be taken seriously, you might as well watch another rerun of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

Not helping are the fact that the two main supporting characters, Tanya and Iain, never existed. As usual, Robbie steals every frame she's in, but she can't hide the fact that she is simply a plot device, there to remind Kim that other women are not her friends unless they're talking glibly about vaginas. Freeman's character is a composite of real-life men Barker met on assignment, and any of those real-life men would have been more worth watching than Iain, essentially a penis wrapped in a Celtics scarf. As Ba(r)ker, Fey is . . . well, she's Tina Fey. We all like her impressions, but I struggle to think of anything she brings to this screen that she didn't bring to Mean Girls.

But that's not all. There's already been some controversy over the casting of interpreter Fahim (Christopher Abbott) and Afghan attorney general Sadiq (Alfred Molina). You may notice that neither of these actors are Middle Eastern. That's completely unnecessary. So is the fact that Fahim's name is Fahim instead of Farooq, another pointless name change. So is Molina's decision to play Sadiq as a caricature of a skeevy Persian politician enchanted by a sassy American woman. In the book, the skeevy politician is actually Nawaz Sharif, the former and current prime minister of Pakistan. That would be catnip for a screenwriter if Robert Carlock, best known for his work on (groan) 30 Rock, hadn't decided that the Pakistan half of Barker's story, arguably the more interesting half, was too hard to write.

These diversions from the source material are confusing enough, but it's the third act that brings the most WTF to WTF. To soundtrack the completely implausible plot point I mentioned earlier, which involves the authorization of a general in a war zone, they chose Air Supply's "Without You." The only situation in which any Air Supply song is appropriate is a network TV commercial in which a glass of milk stares longingly at a tray of freshly baked cookies. But beyond that (SPOILER), it becomes clear within three minutes that the most important characters in this scene are perfectly capable of living without each other. So . . . why?

If NBC launches a wacky sitcom about an embedded reporter next season, we'll know who to blame.

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originally posted: 03/06/16 15:19:46
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