I hate to keep harping on the subject of whitewashing, but Hollywood keeps shoving it back in my face. One of the major supporting characters in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an Afghan named Fahim, a former doctor who’s now working as a street guide and fixer for Tina Fey’s heroine while she’s in Afghanistan. He’s played by Christopher Abbott, a white actor who should have received an Oscar nomination for his work in last year’s James White. He gives a nice performance here as a buttoned-up guy who keeps his cool under fire and bares his soul only little by little and on his own terms. Still, as good as he is, why couldn’t this role have gone to an actor of Middle Eastern descent at the very least? I kept wondering what Homayoun Ershadi or Amr Waked or Ashraf Barhom could have done with it. This consideration marred what is a not unenjoyable film about a forgotten American war.
Based on Kim Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this movie stars Fey as Kim Baker, a New York-based TV journalist in 2003 who’s sick of her white-collar rut. She jumps at the chance when her network reveals that they’re desperate for Afghanistan correspondents with all their talent in Iraq covering the invasion. Ensconced in Kabul and woefully unfamiliar with the country, she spends three years getting news stories while based in the “Kabubble,” a heavily guarded safe haven of far-more-experienced foreign journalists.
This is written by Robert Carlock, best known for creating TV’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and directed by the team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who did Crazy, Stupid, Love., among others. They do well to manage the tone. The movie is funny, but the backdrop of hardship and suffering is always hovering in the background, and the filmmakers know that these journalists get only glimpses of it. The salty workplace camaraderie includes many words stronger than “foxtrot,” and a main source is Tanya (Margot Robbie), an Australian reporter who finds common cause with Kim as the only other woman in the Kabubble. When Kim informs her of her desire to stay faithful to her boyfriend back home (Josh Charles), Tanya responds, “Let me know how that goes in two months when your pussy’s eating your leg.”
Fey’s recessiveness as a performer isn’t quite enough to animate things here, especially her character’s romance with a Scottish journo (Martin Freeman) or the scenes when Kim gets herself into life-threatening trouble. The directors don’t reach the bawdy heights of their classic Bad Santa or their underappreciated I Love You, Phillip Morris, either. Still, they have the likes of Alfred Molina as a sleazy Afghan politician and Billy Bob Thornton as a pissy but sympathetic Marine general on their side, plus a nice turn by Evan Jonigkeit as a soldier who gives Kim straight talk about the war and winds up paying for it. Their movie is a breezy little character study of unserious people driven to do a serious job. We may need grander statements about our forays into the Middle East, but we can use movies like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, too.
[box_info]Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Starring Tina Fey and Margot Robbie. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Written by Robert Carlock, based on Kim Barker’s book. Rated R.[/box_info]