Whiskey Tango Foxtrot September 16, 2016
I’m patiently waiting for the day when Hollywood conquers the uncharted territory that is Tina Fey. Television’s clearly her forte: from Saturday Night Live to 30 Rock and back to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Fey’s proven time and time again that her barbed brand of comedy is something to be esteemed, never undermined, underrated, or underseen. She’s forever the smartest person in the room, an onscreen talent so natural in her every move that we’d swear that the woman in front of us is not a movie star but an everywoman who hit the big time and showed everyone that you can bring a hint of yourself to your performances and still outgun the big boys playing dress up.
But since she left NBC in pursuit of a more cinematically-minded career, Fey’s successes with both audiences and critics has dwindled. Since 2013’s meager Admission, in which she was the brightest thing in a movie too safe to deserve her, her filmography has become comprised mostly of forgettable missteps too much in her comfort zone to make any sort of long-lasting impression. Like Lily Tomlin or Goldie Hawn, comedic actresses so extraordinary that any project in middling territory seemed wasteful of them, Fey’s unique persona is almost impossible to complement correctly. She’s too far beyond everyone in her category.
The Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love., Focus) directed Whiskey Tango Foxtrot continues the trend of passable Fey vehicles, but it at least pushes the actress out of the confines of forgettable slapstick and into the restrictions of ethically thought-provoking (but still forgettable) biographical dramedy. In the movie, she is Kim Baker, a pencil-pushing television journalist growing bored with the constant barraging of mediocre stories to report. After deciding that a higher-profile career would benefit her both professionally and personally, she hastily agrees to spend the next three months in Afghanistan, where she’ll serve as a war correspondent during Operation Enduring Freedom.
To her surprise, her jumping to a different country is monumentally rewarding. For the first time in years, her work feels meaningful, thrilling. She likes her co-workers (Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, among others), and is fascinated by the culture shock of the Middle East and by the inside glimpses she gets into small-scale military melee. From 2003-2006 (a far longer amount of time she initially thought she’d be spending in Afghanistan), Kim’s occupational life changes drastically. But her disillusionment with the U.S. increases, too, and the more she puts herself at risk to look for bombshells of stories, the more she gambles away the work she’s so passionately thrown herself into.
Fey’s performance in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is scintillating — cutting, sensitive, but never melodramatically agitated — and so are the characterizations from Robbie (pointedly farcical), Freeman (exceptionally explicit), and Billy Bob Thornton (charmingly gruff). But the film struggles in hatching a story as captivating as its ensemble; never as illuminating as it could be and not story-driven enough to generate stakes that mean something, it tenuously sits in a puddle of occasionally ace dialogue and continuously phenomenal performances without ever going anywhere.
So it’s well-informed without being engaging, knowing of atmosphere without transporting us into its scenario effectively. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is decent, but it’s not first-rate, and until Hollywood figures out how to use Tina Fey properly, I’m fine waiting tolerantly — I know her The Late Show is out there somewhere, and if it takes years to get her there, so be it. She’s worth the anticipation. C+