Even when a film’s message is anti-war, it’s hard to set a film inside a battle zone without glamorizing the conflict on some level. That issue carries over into Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, using the chaos of the war in Afghanistan as a backdrop for its lead character’s awakening. Fortunately, the film takes that “awakening” and begins to examine some of the moral and ethical issues lurking under the surface, resulting in some poignant considerations.
For journalist Kim Baker (Tina Fey), volunteering for a lengthy stay in Afghanistan offers her a chance to escape the monotony of her professional and personal life. Once in Afghanistan, namely Kabul, she grows accustomed to the climate created by foreign journalists and dignitaries stationed inside what is referred to as the “Kabubble.” This includes a friendly rivalry with her new bestie, Tanya (Margot Robbie), an ever-evolving relationship with Scottish photojournalist Iain (Martin Freeman), and a partnership with Afghan fixer Fahim (Christopher Abbott). As the war drags on, though, Kim’s gender provides a stark contrast to the rights afforded to Afghan women.
Eventually, Kim begins to stand out by telling these stories, but she also begins to crave the adrenaline rush that comes with reporting these stories – to the point where Fahim calls her out, then quits since he’s not willing to risk his life. And when Iain is kidnapped by a fringe group, Kim orchestrates a rescue mission, but it’s not played as a joyous event. It takes political bribery and threats to rescue the man.
As a leading actress, Fey’s film roles to date have failed to capture what made her a success on 30 Rock, particularly in her more dramatic turns. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot benefits from a script by Fey’s 30 Rock compatriot Robert Carlock, who manages to create a lot of little details to flesh out both Kim and the Kabubble. The film also uses its comedy as a valve release, but tends to largely stick with a frank, dramatic tone throughout. That blend of drama with a sharply comic edge is perfect for Fey, and while she’s supported by a strong ensemble cast (also including Billy Bob Thornton and Alfred Molina), she’s the indisputable star here.
That being said, there is one major issue the film has: whitewashing its two primary Afghan characters. Neither Abbott nor Molina are Afghan, or even have roots in the region. These are supporting roles, not leads who are key to making the project money like Fey, which throws the whole idea of casting “bankable” stars out the window. Bankability is a poor excuse in any case, to be clear, and these two roles could have offered an actor a chance to break through Hollywood’s tendency to avoid casting people of color. There’s a very real and legitimate argument to make about Hollywood not giving an opportunity to minorities, and this is one sign of it.
Even beyond its casting issues, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t perfect by any means. Much like its lead, it’s a bit messy at times, but it can be surprisingly sharp under pressure. There’s even a sense of self-deprecation, as Kim frequently refers to herself as “that white lady,” like she’s acknowledging her placement and prominence in a story in a foreign country. Elements like that contribute to a film that manages to click, in spite of some of its faults.