Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006 and there's a party going on held by the Western journalists present in the region to cover the war. But as they drunkenly dance, suddenly the music stops and they fall silent as a rumble is heard: a bomb landing close by that pulls them up short and puts a damper on the evening. How did American reporter Kim Baker (Tina Fey) get involved with this? It goes back a few years to when she was writing copy for a television news station and feeling as if her life was going nowhere, so when the opportunity arose to do a little more, to contribute to the world, she decided what the hell, let's go for it. That opportunity was to travel to Asia and cover the Afghan conflict, which sounded easy enough in principle...
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was yet another attempt by cinema to tackle the headline-grabbing wars of the early twenty-first century, and this one flopped even more than the others. Fair enough, not every example had been financial disappointments, Clint Eastwood's partially Iraqi-set American Sniper had gone over like gangbusters in its native land, but that was a gung ho character study with an identifiable hero and a simplified version of a very complex situation, and the more measured efforts like this were just not interesting the potential audience. Indeed, this was one of the biggest money losers of its year, in spite of featuring an identifiable star of comedy leading its international cast.
However, Tina Fey was more associated with television, and her movie career had tended to be overshadowed by her endeavours on the small screen, which in terms of getting laughs had been mighty. There are TV stars who make the transition to the cinema, but some find themselves simply too close to their achievements elsewhere, and it would seem Fey was one of those; besides, did you really want to be lectured on the state of the war against terror by Liz Lemon? Assuming you did, and this was scripted by her ever-reliable writing partner Robert Carlock, then that was not what you were getting here anyway, it was a loose adaptation of the war memoirs of journalist Kim Barker, and more serious in tone.
That mood was informed by the classic "war is weird" novel of decades before, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, a story of the Second World War that had proven extremely influential in depicting armed conflict in the cinema, but had also been indirectly responsible for a bunch of shapeless war movies with alternately wry and cynical approaches to the horrors therein. Here was that approach once again, and as ever succeeding in some areas better than others, leaving mixed feelings about the subject and its stylings in being brought to the screen. Fey was sympathetic enough, and you could tell where you were supposed to chuckle, but as often the combat and society that was mired in it was so anti-laughter that the film had its work cut out trying to render it amusing while still conveying the gravity of the situation.
Fey's Kim was supported by a selection of largely invented personalities in the news business, including second-billed Margot Robbie as an Australian reporter whose first conversation with Kim is basically asking permission to sleep with her guards, which suggest more caricature than any shock value, especially as that aspect seemed to have been invented for the film. Martin Freeman was a Scottish reporter with the unlikely name of Ian MacKelpie with a not bad/not brilliant accent (though why he says "Go bile yer head" and not "Go bile yer heid" would seem to be pandering to those unfamiliar with Scottish vernacular - make up your mind!), a sex-obsessed photographer who Kim surprises herself by falling for and turns heroine when he is kidnapped and must be rescued. Alfred Molina was there too as a comedy politician, a very Western take on the Afghan authorities, while the best performance by a non-Asian in an Asian role was Christopher Abbott's Fahim, Kim's assistant who makes sure she is safe. Billy Bob Thornton also showed up as a regulation oddball military officer. Points were made about sexual inequality and how neverending the situation appeared, but in the end this just wasn't distinctive enough: you emerged unenlightened. Music by Nick Urata.