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Movie Review: Tina Fey Is a Woman on a Mission in ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’

whiskey-tango-foxtrot-review-taliban-shuffle_rVFZol1YfTina Fey stars in ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Happily there is more action than not and the film doesn’t completely become some war zone version of Elizabeth Gilbert (let’s call it, Eat, Pray, Love, Bomb). Clearly Baker is on a mission to find herself, a luxury that is not afforded any of the locals, particularly its women. Short of two scenes, both of which are among the movie’s more powerful, the repression of Afghanistan’s women is not really addressed. In one, Baker is visiting a village and is lured inside by its women who fill her in on their small, ongoing act of rebellion. (Sadly, it’s a touch reminiscent of a scene in the abysmal Sex & The City II, a movie that was beyond tone-deaf when it came to depicting women’s rights in the Middle East.) In the other, Baker herself is wearing a burka and unknowingly risks her life and her crew’s to get a story. The danger when she’s spotted at a men-only gathering is palpable.

Other moments resonate as well. Her Fixer, who was a doctor before the conflict, warns her about the narcotic-like effects of war reportage adrenaline. At various points, the financial underpinnings of the war are painfully, sometimes disastrously, exposed. A photographer points out that a begging con artist is nevertheless begging. And later, a wounded Marine makes a simple and eloquent case for not laying blame.

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These and many other scenes are memorable, but the movie feels too episodic. There isn’t enough of an arc. Just as Baker’s reason for going is never completely fleshed out, her character doesn’t evolve as much as it could. This is unfortunate, because the fault is in the writing and direction, not in Fey’s excellent work. She would have been just as believable if she’d been given a richer, more dramatic transition to share with us.

Fey is working with a solid supporting cast, some of whom, like the always extraordinary Cherry Jones, are wasted. Margot Robbie is compelling as a gorgeous and, we learn, ruthless rival journalist. Billy Bob Thornton is greatly entertaining as the Marines’ commanding officer. And Martin Freeman is colorful as Iain MacKelpie, Baker’s Kabul love interest.

Where the filmmakers made an unfortunate decision was in casting two actors of European descent to play the movie’s only two Afghan characters. Alfred Molina (Italian and Spanish by way of London) is an appropriate buffoon as lascivious Secretary of State Ali Massoud Sadiq. Christopher Abbott (an Italian-American, who reminded me of a younger Mandy Patinkin in Yentl) is intense and sympathetic as Fixer Fahim. I have no issues with either actor’s portrayal, but their casting is indicative of Hollywood’s western bias that was so evident at this year’s Oscars.

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That same myopia plays out in the movie’s climax. While the country’s citizens (men, women and children) face death and destruction every day, it’s the kidnapping of Scotsman MacKelpie that drives Baker to use all her resources to rescue him, as well as her flagging career.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an engaging, entertaining movie. And Tina Fey is wonderful in it. (One begins to wonder if there’s anything this brilliant writer, producer, actor can’t do.) But, it could have been much more.

When Baker finally decides that she’s ready to leave, she explains her reasons. “It feels too normal here. This isn’t normal life, you know.”  The problem that the movie skirts is that she’s wrong. It absolutely is normal life for millions of Afghans.

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