First of all, let’s talk about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s trailer. Have you seen this trailer? Judging from this trailer, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot looks like an absolutely zany adventure for an American woman in Afghanistan. Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” plays in the background — a 2001 hit that made a prominent appearance in The 40-Year-Old Virgin — as we watch what appears to be a house party. I mean, wasn’t this same type of thing tried in that terrible Bill Murray movie, Rock the Kasbah? Who is this trailer marketing to?
What’s crazy about the actual film is that, despite its marketing, it’s barely a comedy. I don’t mean that in some sort of snarky “Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six is barely a comedy” kind of way. It’s seriously barely a comedy. It’s like any scene that could at all qualify as being “funny” were rounded up and spliced into a trailer… cue Missy Elliott.
In reality, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot stars Tina Fey (in her best lead role to date) as Kim Baker, a reporter who, in the mid-2000s, accepts an assignment to cover the war in Afghanistan. (The film is based on Kim Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.) While she’s there, nothing particularly “hilarious” happens, as you’d probably expect in a war zone. Friends are lost. Soldiers and civilians are killed. The only real humor in the film comes from something the embedded journalists — who also includes Margot Robbie as Tanya and Martin Freeman as Iain — call the “Kabubble”: the fact that, after years of covering this seemingly endless war, all of this starts to become “normal” to them.
This is not a movie that makes prominent, comical use of Missy Elliott songs (though, we do hear House of Pain). In tone, it’s closer to Iron & Wine somberness and, from what I’ve heard, gives a pretty good representation of what it’s like to actually be embedded as a reporter in Afghanistan. There’s a Kabul nightlife. Kim and Tanya often go out to local watering holes. Sure, a big part of it is to drink away some of the things they witness on a daily basis, but they do have some fun.
And, yes, a relationship eventually forms between Kim and Iain (Freeman), a Scottish reporter. It doesn’t really work, but it’s not supposed to work. It’s obvious this is a relationship that only exists inside their world and once either one steps out of it, it’s over.
So, here’s a problem: I found myself conflicted about Christopher Abbott’s portrayal of an Afghan interpreter and guide named Fahim. I’m conflicted because Abbott is good in this role and serves as the moral center of the film. It’s hard not to be drawn to him. So, what I’m about to write isn’t at all a judgment of Abbott himself. But in a world where the “whitewashing” of movie roles has been given a lot of recent attention – and not to even mention the tone at Sunday night’s Academy Awards – how in the world does anyone involved with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot think this casting is a good idea? Here’s a meaty role designed for someone of Middle Eastern descent, and it’s given to a white actor. It’s flabbergasting. I am flabbergasted. This, to me, makes even less sense than the controversy over Gods of Egypt because that movie is so stupid and dumb, I question why anybody would want to be in it. Fahim in Whisky Tango Foxtrot is a really great role. And I say all ofthis as someone who is an admirer of Abbott and this film.
Anyway … Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is basically a drama, being marketed as a comedy, that’s a lot better than you probably think it is and finally gives Tina Fey a worthwhile lead role in a film. (Seriously: Baby Mama? Date Night? Admission? This is Where I Leave You? Oof.) Fey really does a great job and, again, it’s a much more dramatic turn than we’d seen her in before, or expected out of this film.
I suspect the people who didn’t show up to see Rock the Kasbah (a very bad movie) will also pass on Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, thinking it’s more of the same. But don’t let the marketing deceive you: Whisky Tango Foxtrot has a lot more to offer than perceived “zany hijinks” and 15-year-old Missy Elliott songs.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.