Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Great Actor, Wrong Medium

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Tina Fey is an elegant, accomplished comedienne who has created a national treasure with her take-offs on Sarah Palin. Her capture this year of Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump left the national TV audience chuckling with delight. She is a major talent perfectly suited to the sharp bursts that propel television whether in a series or popping up on the news. That’s both the triumph and the problem.

Is it possible that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, fails because Fey and her collaborator, screenwriter Robert Carlock, are operating in a medium rooted in entirely different timing? Because the film never achieves a sum of its parts, it feels fractured throughout – as if it were being filmed for television in a series of shots.

Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is a bored, desk-bound reporter writing news copy. Craving action and free to look for it, she heads for Afghanistan where she is plunged into the alcohol and sex fueled culture of Americans dropped into the chaos of wartime in a foreign land. Kim meets Tanya (Margo Robbie), a sophisticated competitor, Fahim (Christopher Abbott), an Afghan protector, Scottish photographer Iain (Martin Freeman), Alfred Molina as the Afghan attorney general, and the American general (Billy Bob Thornton) who makes her promise not to sleep with any of his men.

These are the characters who rise from the din of the far-from-home community, and only Christopher Abbott as Kim’s protector draws our interest. Personal episodes alternate with battle explosions and environmental filth while Kim navigates the bedlam bravely. Now and then – as when she understands the consequences of not being covered from head to foot in public – she delivers a genuine sense of understanding and fear. Otherwise, we watch the unfolding of explosions and danger that are photographed beautifully but rarely fit the script. The constant switching between Afghanistan’s war torn landscape and the alcohol soaked gatherings of ex-pats seems contrived.

The sight of Tina Fey striding through the turmoil with dignity and perfect makeup on her journey from office boredom to successful war correspondent leaves us in a state of confusion. It’s unfortunate that the story Fey and Carlock want to tell – of Afghanistan as the forgotten battlefield deep in the shadow of the Iraq war works well but is nearly erased by the off duty politics.

Because the movie is filmed expertly, we have become more interested in Kim’s navigating the treatment of women in the Afghan culture than in a bored American copywriter’s desire to advance as a war correspondent. Ironically, when the script shifts to her eventual professional success stateside, we lose interest.

Because Fey is a brilliant observer of her own country’s foibles, we keep waiting for punchlines that never come. It can’t be all bad to be so good at seeing to the heart of human imperfection that audiences can’t accept you in a two hour movie. May Tina Fey reign as master of short bursts of observation in that other medium.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Title : Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Word count : 497
Distributor : Paramount Pictures
Running time : 1:51
Rating : R


This entry was posted on March 13, 2016, in Comedy, War.

13 Minutes

Wrenching Historical Footnote

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

13 Minutes

Thirteen Minutes is an intensely graphic history lesson. Older Americans will remember watching Translux newsreels of the Hitler regime during WWII. Middle-agers will remember studying it in school. For Millennials, it is ancient history. What are the questions that linger for people of all ages who watch this story of the 1939 assassination attempt on Hitler?

The central question from that time grows ever more puzzling with time: how did a man with no power base manage to win fanatical loyalty as leader of the Nazi party while designing the Holocaust and leading Germany into a war that killed 55 million people? This movie shows the frightening rallies that elevated Hitler to total control while ordinary citizens morphed into obedience. Georg Elser was not among the obedient.

Elser (Christian Friedel) was a skilled carpenter who detested the idea of war. When he heard that Hitler was going to annex Austria and part of Czechoslovakia, he made his final decision to plant a bomb in the Munich beer hall where Hitler spoke each year. This movie is the story of Elser’s building and planting the bomb, the explosion that followed, and the brutal torture he endured from the moment he was captured after the explosion in 1939.

Elser came to the beer hall every night for supper and then hid there while working through the night for 30 nights. He hollowed out a pillar, set his explosives, and on the night of Hitler’s speech, eight people died in his explosion while Hitler escaped because he had left thirteen minutes early. Elser was caught as he crossed the Swiss border.

Actor Christian Friedel hands us a piece of history that wasn’t talked about during the immediate post-war years. He is thoroughly believable as an ordinary man whose conscience drove him to plan the assassination and as the prisoner who confessed under torture but held fast to the truth that he acted alone.

As for the cast, it is uniformly chilling to watch actors create the documented sadism. The Nazis they create leave us stone cold. Unfortunately, in a mistake common to many serious historical efforts, the filmmakers inject bits of Elser’s former lover to widen the film’s appeal. It is far too hard, in this case, to change moods at all after we have been so skillfully dropped into that horrific time.

The lingering question: why was Elser’s family ostracized for decades after the war? The Nazi hierarchy managed a collusion of silence about the atrocities for fifteen post-war years; that silence was punctured by a young German lawyer who grew to adulthood a decade after the war ended and discovered the head of Auschwitz teaching in a local grammar school. For that extraordinary story, see Labyrinth of Lies, nominated for an Oscar this year. With these two excellent films, Germany has punctured the silence that kept a whole generation of the country’s young people in ignorance about their country’s role in World War II.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Title : Thirteen Minutes
Word count : 501
Distributor : Sony Pictures Classics
Running time : 1:59
Rating : R