There is no requirement that a war film – or a film set in a war – grapple existentially or philosophically with that conflict. But, at the very least, it should at least make for more than just wallpaper for another narrative. Such is the case in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” based on Kim Barker’s memoir about her experiences covering the dog days of the American presence in Afghanistan.
Very few people – except maybe a few U.S. senators – go to fictionalized accounts of wartime stories and expect the level of historical discourse that might accompany a documentary. (Looking for a great one about Afghanistan? Find “Restrepo” or “The Oath” online.) A certain level of simplification is expected, if not practically mandated to connect with moviegoers who might not know the locations of Iraq and Afghanistan on a globe. It’s not that “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” fails at providing context, like Michael Bay’s “13 Hours,” that proves so bothersome. It’s that the film doesn’t even try.
Were it not for the occasional gunshots and explosions, one could easily mistake the war zone of Afghanistan for any oppressive third-world country. Tina Fey’s protagonist Kim Barker bops around the “Ka-bubble” of Kabul less in search of a hard-hitting story and more in search of herself. She takes the wartime correspondent position in America’s Forgotten War as a means of rescuing herself from becoming forgotten as well. Facing a midlife crisis from her dead-end relationship and desk-bound career, she hops on the plane to Afghanistan with the same gusto of Elizabeth Gilbert in “Eat Pray Love.”
Despite the frequent self-deprecating remarks about Kim’s race and gender (expected since screenwriter Robert Carlock is a frequent writer on Fey’s projects), “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” scarcely capitalizes on this humor. The film’s antics, ranging from the somber to the sardonic, merely serve as a playground for her privilege.
The filmmakers’ regard for the Afghan experience during the war, meanwhile, is quite clearly very little. This disrespect begins with the dubious casting of Alfred Molina (Italian-Spanish) and Christopher Abbott (Italian-Portuguese) to pass as natives, though at least their characters get some personality and depth. Otherwise, the Afghans portrayed are either terrorists, faceless props for Kim’s feminist victory or child con artists.
By the time “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” switches into full “The Hurt Locker” mode and suggests Kim has become addicted to the rush of war, it’s fair to ask, “What war?” For her, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan seems like an exotic human interest story, one with no military or geopolitical ramifications worth discussing. Thankfully, the shift towards a more ostensibly serious tone does not feel too abrupt since the film was hardly very funny to begin.
Add another tally to the “miss” column for Tina Fey’s attempts to broaden her range outside of comedy (the other being “This Is Where I Leave You“). She needs a script as perceptive of the world as Fey has proven herself to be, either behind the Weekend Update desk or in her brilliant screenplay for “Mean Girls.” C+ /