‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ Would Be Better If It Wasn’t All About White Lady Empowerment

Tina Fey is good! But... she's still Tina Fey.

In Paul Schrader’s 2002 film Auto Focusa biopic of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane, a character takes him to task for starring in a comedy about WWII. It’s an interesting moment in an otherwise mediocre film because 51 years after Crane’s show premiered — and even longer since Stanley Kubrick had audiences rolling in the aisles at nuclear war — nobody blinks an eye at blending war and comedy together. Whatever fallout the makers may have expected from turning the Holocaust into the launching pad for a sitcom clearly didn’t come to pass with the show running for six seasons instead.

A year after Hogan went off the air, it was M*A*S*H’s turn to make the horrors of war a playground for comedic folly. That history-making show was of course a spin-off of Robert Altman’s acclaimed 1970 movie of the same name which, like its TV counterpart, spun hijinks out of the Korean War. No sooner was M*A*S*H’s run over that ‘Allo ‘Allo began its nine-season run, turning the story of WWII resistance fighters into a frivolous comedy of accents. And these are just a few.

The most unexpected peas in a pod: war and comedy just work. They allow storytellers to not only highlight the absurdity of war, but provide audiences a release to the grief and suffering that comes with sending men and women into battle in an age of depressing news fatigue. As Joan Rivers says during her act in the excellent documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: “9/11? If we didn’t laugh, where the hell would we all be?”

Tina Fey And The White Lady Cliché

It’s in Afghanistan where we find Tina Fey in her latest movie, Whisky Tango Foxtrot (yes, those initials are accurate) where she plays Kim Barker, a real-life journalist who told her story of self-discovery amid the spiralling war in Afghanistan in the early-to-mid 2000s in the book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The New York Times, labelled it “hilarious and harrowing, witty and illuminating” and, while the film certainly tries to be all of those things, it rarely succeeds completely.

Barker has arrived in Afghanistan to escape her life, which is miserable in the way that only white, successful, attractive New Yorkers in movies and TV can be. She writes news scripts for broadcasters and is not-so-subtly informed by her boss, she’s perfect for the difficult international posting as she’s unmarried and has no kids. After accepting the job she reports on-camera under fire and with quippy zingers — ensuring the constant threat of death is never too much of a buzzkill to fans expecting a Liz Lemon tour of the troops.

I know Tina Fey has her doubters. She’s been criticised as not feminist enough, or the wrong kind of feminist, or using feminism as a Trojan Horse to actually make jokes of other women and minorities. I doubt this film will sway those people. It’s easy to find holes in its message of female empowerment, reading her character as but a minor twist on the “nice white lady” trope. She stumbles into a foreign land in a cardigan and sensible shoes with a colourful backpack and turns people onto her side, all the while showing the same hints of ignorance similar to those that Fey has been forced to address before (most prominently in 30 Rock’s famous ‘TGS Hates Women’ episode and recent complaints about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt).

Regardless, she displays fine acting chops that keep the film afloat through both its comedic and dramatic moments. Her performance makes it easier to forgive potential lapses of judgement as her wily smarts are a perfect fit for this character who discovers tricks up her sleeve she never knew she had. It also suggests that Fey should seek out more challenging fare like those of her fellow Saturday Night Live cohorts Kristen Wiig and Molly Shannon, who have made a career out of challenging independent works that balance humour with the melancholy of a sad clown comedian.

Sex, Race, And All That WTF

Given how rare it is to see stories of women in warzones on screen, it’s a shame that the film doesn’t choose to examine these core issues in any grander detail. It approaches them — in one scene Fey’s character is pulled aside by a group of women in burqas who reveal their faces to her behind closed doors — but it always pulls back just as it gets interesting. Sure, it’s a long way from M*A*S*H’s ten-year effort to humiliate a woman charmingly nicknamed “Hotlips”, yet it’s also not as sly, observant, or flat-out funny as Goldie Hawn and Eileen Brennan’s battle of power-hungry wits in Private Benjamin (1980).

Nowhere more obvious is this sheepishness displayed than in the friendship that forms between Fey and Margot Robbie, another reporter embedded in the war. The script by Robert Carlock blessedly ignores boring female bitchy competitiveness for the majority of its runtime, but when they do come to blows (quite organically, it must be said), directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa pull back and fail to really explore the dynamics of this otherwise interesting on-screen female friendship in distress.

The film is even less interested in the race relations on screen, which is odd considering where it’s set. The locals are mostly secondary to Barker’s story, and those that are featured prominently are portrayed by actors that are most definitely not of Afghan descent. Alfred Molina (a Brit of Spanish heritage) portrays a corrupt, sexual predator that we’re meant to find amusing. And then there’s Christopher Abbott (Charlie from Girls) who is positioned as a wise teacher whose beard and traditional dress disguise that he’s portrayed by an actor from Connecticut of Italian and Portuguese descent. For what it’s worth, Fey (a producer on the film) has criticised this whitewashed casting.

People make a very big deal about this sort of thing. And rightly so. But it can often derail other issues and, in the case of WTF, I don’t think that casting Afgani actors would have helped the movie’s other issues. Despite the performances of Fey and Robbie, and despite the unique perspective of its subject, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot never seems to be setting its sights any higher than a story of one woman’s self-discovery. It had the perfect chance to give us something fresh and new, but instead sheepishly recoils just short of the finish line.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is in cinemas now.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much at @glenndunks.