Alfred Molina film

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT Review: Laughing at (and Secretly Terrified of) Danger

Monday, March 07, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writer: Robert Carlock
Starring: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in theaters now

Gallows humor is both a wonderful and terrible thing. It is a necessary thing for those participating in it, but it can have a boomerang effect on outsiders who view it. If those who have not experienced such horrors, nor the need to dissociate themselves from such horrors, see something that depicts such humor, they can feel a tug inside themselves saying, “This is wrong. Don't do that.” But for the people stuck in the thick of things, it's totally normal. They can still acknowledge the gravity of their situation, but they need the release.

Such is the case for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot's Tina Fey, as Kim Baker – a fictionalized version of real-life journalist Kim Barker – reporting on camera during a montage of her getting her bearings as a war correspondent in the years when the war in Afghanistan started to really go south for Americans. She looks down for a second beside a bombed-out pile of rubble and curses, startled. She says they have to start again because, as the shoulder-mounted TV camera quickly pans to the ground, there is a severed hand greeting Kim.

This moment is played for laughs, but they are nervous laughs. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have built a reputation for uncomfortable humor across their career, which began in earnest with penning the screenplay for the 2003 Terry Zwigoff-directed Bad Santa. Since moving into the directors' chairs, the two have softened a touch, getting a little less acerbic – but still plenty irreverent – with the likes of I Love You Phillip Morris and last year's breezy and entertaining con artist picture, Focus. With Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, they continue to play within that sweet spot of dark and witty humor, occasional uplift, and clear-eyed realism about some of humanity's worst tendencies. That they are able to do so with an unobtrusive but still stylish camera is gravy.

The chief virtue of the movie is its ability to never lose the script. It knows it is a comedy about a war reporter in the middle of what became a forgotten war. That is inherently a sad, frightening, and ultimately angering subject. But Ficarra, Requa, and screenwriter Robert Carlock – who is Tina Fey's writing partner on television projects like 30 Rock – make sure nearly every moment is a blend of pathos and righteousness, as well as packed with jokes. There is a gradual sense of understanding for each character who has been in a war zone for years that this is far from normal or healthy behavior. Perhaps the pace of the jokes diminishes a bit during this slide to drama, but they never stop entirely.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not always deft in how it unspools itself. It can get a little on the nose in making its themes explicit. There are conversations Kim has with colleagues – those who become friends, family, and more – about their place in the world and the war. Kim's guide to the region, Fahim (Christopher Abbott), is a former doctor who happens to have a background in treating those with opioid addictions. In one scene, they discuss the addiction that builds inside people around danger for extended periods of time. Luckily the writer and directors keep these two characters cognizant of what is happening in the scene enough to get a little meta – they say how they are dancing around the heart of their argument – but the script makes it a tad less nimble than the rest of the picture bears out.

Luckily it has performers of such depth working in its favor. Tina Fey is not just another spin on her Liz Lemon character from 30 Rock. She is a person who is stuck in a career she hates, looking for a way out, no matter what it may bring, so she signs up for the most dangerous possible assignment a journalist can take. Her humor and occasional haplessness generate much of the film's humor – she is not the coolest customer when it comes to understanding rules and regulations. Her determination toward excellence – grabbing a camera and jumping into the path of bullets on her first ride-along with Marines so she can get the best shot – and the deepening realization in her eyes as the years drag on, shot in extreme closeup by the directors, reveal far more than her status as a modern comedy titan would suggest.

Margot Robbie, as Kim's Australian counterpart and closest friend in the war zone, plays things a shade darker as she lets her ego and career latter climbing put her into increasingly unsafe situations – after two straight creatively successful films with the directors, it would be great to see Robbie become their lucky charm. Martin Freeman, as a snotty Scottish photographer who doesn't always have the best way with other people, lets himself become vulnerable throughout the movie, revealing the charm and decency that has made him such a good romantic lead in his career. And Alfred Molina gets the showiest role as a flamboyant doofus of an Afghan bureaucrat always looking for favors, but his part is nevertheless sly on the margins and used to make a point about ignoring naked self-interest on occasion to do something to protect other people.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a movie for adults who don't like to be pandered to. It charms and it laughs irreverently in the face of danger, but it takes its situation seriously and its audience just as seriously. Its mixture of humor, drama, action, and fright are handled as a single, humbling tone. It is humanistic in showing how every moment can have multiple shades and emotions to it. Not every scene is a success, but most of them are. Like the rest of Ficarra and Requa's films, it is the type of thing mass entertainment needs more of. 

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