It’s hard not to be kind of in love with Tina Fey. She’s clearly whip-smart, a hell of a writer, snarky and sweet in equal measure. Yet her transition from small to big screen hasn’t been without its share of fumbles, most egregiously with Sisters from a few months back. It’s as if her humour only worked in short bursts, either on SNL, 30 Rock, or The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
With Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Fey finds her muse, channeling the surreal life of war reporter Kim Barker and her travails within the Ka-bubble of Afghanistan. Written by Robert Carlock, a veteran of SNL/30 Rock/Kimmy Schmidt himself, the film feels the first project to truly get Fey’s gifts onto the big screen.
WTF is a film that requires lots of heavy lifting, both in the form of narrative and character. Baker’s story is a darkly comic one, with moments of horror interspersed with the unique insanity exhibited within a war setting. It’s the tonal balance that’s near impossible to pull off, and credit goes to Carlock’s script, as well as directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, for managing to nail the challenge.
Fey’s joined by exemplary performers, including terrific turns by Margot Robbie, Alfred Molina and Billy Bob Thornton. It’s Martin Freeman’s take on combat photographer Iain MacKelpie, a fictional amalgam of a bunch of real life characters but nonetheless one critical to the film’s narrative arc. Freeman does dramedy brilliantly, managing equal parts fun and frown like few other performers. As a foil for Fey he’s terrific, and the film would be faltering without his participation.
Yet the film does sit comfortably on Fey’s shoulders, and she’s never been more charming or effective. One can believe the series of (often poor) choices made by the lead, driven by a sense of purpose and addiction to the adrenalized thrill. Fey’s take on “Kim Baker” (a consonant away from the real-life character) avoids coming across as petulant or wild, giving instead a sense of recklessness driven by noble pursuits of career and journalistic ideals. It’s rare to see a woman with such rich characterization, mashing together tenacity and ambition, playing in a boys club but without ever succumbing to preachiness or jingoism.
What the movie has going against it, and in a big way, is the marketing behind it. One can’t fault the studio for being baffled as what to do with the work given that much of what makes it exceptional are its subtle shades of moral grayness. Trailers don’t do subtle, and instead we’ve seen for weeks in theatres and on TV scenes of the silliness, with the broad comical moments milked for all they’re worth. In the context of the whole they’re peppered through as spice, in trailer form it makes it seem like the whole thing is a farce.
In my case, at least, this lowered expectation seems to have done wonders – klunky title aside, we’ve got a terrific, at times moving portrayal of the fickleness of war coverage, the people behind the scenes we see fleetingly shown between casual punditry and tabloid nonsense. It’s a film with deep characters and some killer lines of dialogue, presented by top notch performers that deftly present the unique surrealism of a war setting.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a tall glass of dark comedy mixed with serious drama, a drink far more delicious than trailers had led me to believe. It’s Fey’s finest by far, a captivating film that provides a unique and refreshing insight into the warm film genre.