War Voyeurs: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
The book upon which the Tina Fey star-vehicle Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was based, a memoir by Kim Barker about life as a journalist in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan titled The Taliban Shuffle, was clever and charming in spots, but overall disappointing. Barker spent some nine years in southwest Asia, with extensive access to important players and witness to major historical events, and she might have written a thick, panoramic, even definitive account of international relationships during a period of extreme interest. Instead, she, or her editors, decided the better story to tell was that of the raffish Kabul subculture of expatriate journalists, men and women “getting their war on” in obvious imitation of Hunter S. Thompson and Michael Herr, complete with coy references to the cocaine and booze that accelerated their hi-jinx, hook-ups, and delusional self-images as rogues and swashbucklers. Perhaps I’m just envious because I missed the party, but honestly, it seems more like a waste.
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is, if possible, more lightweight than the book on which it is based. Barker the author at least had the decency to understand that returning to Afghanistan after quitting her job as a reporter to work as a bartender at an expat bar emitted a strong odor of inconsequence, if not outright failure. In contrast, Fey, one of the producers of the movie in which she stars, turns the memoir into a tale of triumph in which her Kim Barker character provides the US military forces with important intelligence while goading them into action to accomplish a big mission. Fey the actor is not the problem—she commands the screen in every scene she appears, which in this movie is all of them—but Fey the producer most definitely is. Retired Lieutenant General David Barno, the former commander of military forces in Afghanistan, in this War on the Rocks review smartly praises the broad contours of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s portrait of the war he for a while led. Unfortunately, the movie’s production values are abysmal, with its depiction of Afghans, soldiers, and war degraded by cheapo clichés, poor casting decisions, and story-telling incongruities. Sure, it’s just a (war) comedy, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot could have tried a lot harder. Grade: B-.
War Profiteers: War Dogs
Todd Phillips’ War Dogs, like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, views conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan through the prism of those on the war machine periphery, in this case two young American men trying to strike it rich by selling weapons and equipment to US forces and their allies. Production values are not a big problem in War Dogs, though the one scene depicting combat in Iraq is as ridiculous as anything in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. For the most part, however, War Dogs employs the super-slick look and feel of The Big Short, another fired-up movie about craven money-making. Where Phillips really steals a march on Fey, though, is in his choice of subject. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s glamorizing of the press corps war subculture seems tired in part because it such a Vietnam thing to do: by and large, journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan so defanged their anti-establishment bite and compromised their integrity by capitulating to the military’s embedding programs that they rendered themselves unworthy of admiration. By the time Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom got going, all the kids too cool to be common soldiers but still interested in sniffing combat did so not by grabbing pens, notebooks, and cameras. Instead, they became security contractors and arms-dealing entrepreneurs—lucrative jobs that allowed them to snuggle close to the bloody business of killing without having to stand in morning formations and wear safety reflective belts to go to the latrine. Watching Jonah Hill and Miles Teller ham it up as two morally impoverished young men way in over their heads, but forced to be endlessly resourceful, living by their wits and their balls, succeeding beyond expectations and having the time of their life, at least for a while, puts the lack of gusto and independence of journalists, to say nothing of soldiers, in high relief. Grade B+.
War Criminals: A War
Production values are emphatically not a problem in Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s A War, about a squared-away company commander named Claus (played by Pilou Asbaek) in Afghanistan who is brought up on charges that his combat decisions led to the death of civilian noncombatants. The combat scenes are among the best I’ve seen in a contemporary war movie and even better are the quieter moments in which the young officer interacts with his soldiers on a small, remote outpost. Those occupy the first half of A War, while the second half is set in Denmark, where Claus is tried. Mostly staged in court or in Claus’s home, where he reunites with his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) and their children, these scenes are good, too—they certainly do nothing to contradict my impression that Denmark is a far more sensible and hipper country than America. The problem with A War, however, is that the courtroom scenes are unfortunately not very dramatic. No real tension or passion divides or animates its main characters, the plot twists are kind of dull, and the ending flat. As good as it is, the minor key A War desperately needs some Hollywood razzmatazz. Maybe not a warzone rave, as in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, or a clandestine infiltration of Iraq as in War Dogs, but serious shots of energy and imagination along the lines of other military tribunal films such as The Caine Mutiny and A Few Good Men. If only, say, Jonah Hill and Tina Fey had played Claus and Maria, instead of the subdued Asbaek and Novotny, A War might have bubbled with over-the-top irresistibility. Yea, that would have been the ticket…. Grade: B+.