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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: WTF is Wrong with WTF?
By Jacob Krueger
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If you go to see Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, you’re going to have a very mixed experience. There are elements of this movie that are truly beautiful, and then there are elements that are just so incredibly dissatisfying. So WTF is wrong with WTF? Why did a movie with such a stellar cast and compelling concept fall so flat both critically and at the box office? And what can you learn from Whiskey Tango Foxtrot about your own writing?
Every movie makes a promise to its audience. If you deliver on that promise, you can get away with almost anything. But if you make that promise and you fail to deliver, the audience is going to eat you alive. And that’s very much what happened with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
When you see the trailer for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and you see Tina Fey, the first thing you assume is you’re going to laugh your ass off for an hour and a half. As you know if you’ve seen the trailer, there’s a reason for this. The trailer excerpts only the very funniest moments of this film. But the truth of the matter is, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is barely a comedy. It’s primarily a character-driven story about a copy editor who becomes an in-front-of-the-camera embedded journalist in Afghanistan.
Now, the idea of doing a funny Tina Fey movie about the war in Afghanistan is a brilliant premise, and once you bring that premise to the table, it is really hard to back away from it. It’s like giving kids a bunch of ice cream and then trying to get them to eat their vegetables. And, to some degree, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is certainly trying to deliver on that premise; there is an Alfred Molina character who’s trying just as hard as he can to be funny, and there are some really funny moments in the piece. But the things that actually work best in the screenplay are not the comedic elements; they’re the dramatic ones.
At its core, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is actually a romance. And it’s a very beautifully drawn romance. The script is just not fully cooked yet. As happens all too often, both in Hollywood and in indie film and even in student films, they shot it one draft too soon.
So what would a finished version of this script look like? To understand that, we need to look at the screenplay as if we were considering it for a rewrite…
At the center of the script, and at the center of the romance is a relationship between Tina Fey’s character, Kim, and her Afghani translator, Fahim, who’s played by Christopher Abbott. And the scenes between Kim and Fahim are actually some of the most well written in the movie.
Fahim is Kim’s translator, an Afghani man who is engaged to be married to an Afghani woman, and whose culture does not even permit him to touch a woman like Kim. And, of course, the two of them are slowly falling in love.
There’s a brilliantly written scene about halfway through the movie between Kim and Fahim that subtly captures the depth of that relationship. Kim arrives in Afghanistan and pretty quickly shows that she is a lot more than the scared fish-out-of-water that she seems. That, in fact, she is incredibly brave- fearless even- and willing to do pretty much anything to get a good story.
In one of the early scenes, she gets out of the protected Jeep in the middle of an ambush, and is running around unprotected trying to shoot video of the skirmish. And it’s a surprise that this happens so quickly (and I’ll talk later about why it’s also challenging structurally that this happens so quickly) but what we’re watching with Kim is that Kim actually does have the stuff to be an embedded reporter pretty much from the beginning. She is reckless, she is fearless. And, quite, frankly, she is dangerous.
Which leads to the moment I want to talk about, when Fahim resigns as her translator. He resigns because he feels that she is addicted to the adrenaline rush, and that she’s going to get hurt. It’s beautifully written scene, especially as performed by Chris Abbott, who carries the scene in his performance even beyond what’s written on the page.
The way Fahim tells Kim what he’s feeling in this scene is by talking to her about the heroin trade in Afghanistan, which is pretty powerful because he’s actually linking the problem of terrorism in Afghanistan and the heroin trade with the thing that’s going on inside of Tina Fey’s character: the idea that the body, when under stress, actually releases its own form of heroin. Fahim believes that Kim is addicted to that dopamine- to that adrenaline, and he believes that she’s going to end up dying. And, because he loves her, he doesn’t want to work with her anymore. And that’s a hell of a scene! Because you have this man who has just married an Afghani woman- an uneducated woman who can’t be educated because of the rules of her culture- who’s falling in love with this brilliant woman who is perfect for him, with whom he cannot be, cannot touch and cannot even protect. And that is what we call a hot relationship. And that hot relationship is the heart of this screenplay.
And when you see Chris Abbott act the role, you see that he brings a whole other layer of subtext, because nowhere in the text is he saying directly, “I love you.” It’s happening underneath, in the performance.
Unfortunately, what happens next is that Fahim disappears from the screenplay.
I talked in the beginning about how, once you have made a promise to the audience, it’s really hard to back off of the promise, but the challenge of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot not just that it backs off of one promise, it’s that it backs off of two.
The first promise that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot makes is that you’re going to laugh your ass off and guess what? You’re not. What you’re actually going to watch is a romance taking place in the field of battle of Afghanistan. What you’re actually going to watch is a woman start to find meaning in her life while covering a meaningless war with coverage that is never going to be shown on American television. What you’re watching is a love story that cannot bloom because of the laws and the rules and the roles that people are forced to play.
This is a really powerful, powerful premise and the truth of the matter is it’s strong enough, and the writing is good enough, and the story is compelling enough that they might have been able to back the audience off of the initial promise that was made, and actually make them fall in love with this story as well.
The problem that we have in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is that the story then backs you off of that whole promise as well. And the story becomes about something else.
You see, there’s another reporter, and he’s the most stereotypical character in the script. We’ve seen him a million times. He is the total narcissist asshole reporter who turns out to have the heart of gold, and of course he’s a real jerk to Tina Fey at the beginning and by the end, they have fallen in love… or at least in like. But the problem is, there’s no heat in that relationship. There is no way to build the kind of heat that’s present in the forbidden love between Kim and Fahim in this new relationship with a guy who we kind of know is a jerk, who is pretty darn selfish, who, the truth of the matter is, we don’t want her to be with, and who even she is not that committed to being with.
So, what happens is,the promise that’s made gets backed off on, and what happens is, a character that we don’t care about hijacks the movie away from the characters we do. And once he’s entered the world, what happens is Tina Fey’s character no longer has big choices to make. From this point forward, the action is pretty much being driven by him.
So we came thinking we were going to watch a movie that was going to be a broad comedy with Tina Fey set against the war in Afghanistan. Then that plate was taken away from us and we are actually delivered a different plate, and that new plate was actually quite delicious. What we were actually served was a story about forbidden love between a woman with a boyfriend back home and an Afghani man with an Afghani wife: two people who cannot touch, but who are actually meant for each other.
And just when we’re about to dig in and start savoring that dish, a new dish is served to us, and this new dish is driven by completely different characters, but also driven by completely different themes. We thought we were watching a satire. Now, we find out, ‘No. I’m watching a romance about forbidden love.’ We thought we were watching a romance about forbidden love, but now we’re in a new theme, and the new theme is about betrayal.
And that’s what we start to watch now. We’ve seen Kim get betrayed by her husband. Now she’s going to get betrayed by Tonya Vanderpool, her rival reporter. She’s going to get betrayed by her network. And of course, she’s going to get betrayed by the man she… likes.
So, we also get a new theme. And what happens? What’s the new plate that we’re served? Well, unfortunately, we’re served a plate of cliché. Ian, the reporter who becomes the new love interest, replacing the vanished Fahim, is the opposite side of the coin from Fahim’s character. Fahim’s character is driven by nuance and complexity, and Ian is a stock narcissist pulled out of the old flat file.
We have seen this character- the narcissistic reporter who only cares about the story- we’ve seen him a million times. And of course he does have a heart of gold, and of course the two of them end up together for a time. But we’re not rooting for them to be together; in fact, even Kim isn’t rooting for them to be together.
There is no part of their relationship that feels like love. But it could have.
If Fahim had been present at this point in the script, we might be able to understand Kim’s relationship with Ian as a choice that helps her deal with her inability to be with Fahim. We might have been able to understand this as a choice (a self-destructive choice) that grows out of Kim’s fear that she is getting too close to a man who is not an option. Then we might understand this relationship with Ian as a choice she makes to drive Fahim away or to protect Fahim from herself.
But with Fahim vanished, the new love story means virtually nothing. Kim is not committed, Ian’s not committed, and we as an audience are not committed. In fact, what we, as the audience, are doing is sitting around waiting. Because we already know what’s going to happen. You see, there is a big ol’ news story that she is desperate to get. And we already know she’s going to get screwed by her boyfriend who’s going to get it without her; and of course this is exactly what happens.
So we’ve shifted themes, we’ve shifted dinners, we’ve shifted plates, and we’ve gone from a really unique love story to a cliché love story that we’ve seen a million times. We’ve gone from structure to formula, and now we’re just waiting for the ending to play out the way we expect it to.
There’s a little bit of a spoiler ahead. But it’s not going to be a huge spoiler if you know anything about Afghanistan, and anything about reporters in Afghanistan, or if you’ve ever seen this kind of movie: Of course, Ian has to get kidnapped. Ian has to get kidnapped so Kim can run after him, because that’s the formula, right? That’s how these stories work. Except the formula isn’t working, and the reason the formula isn’t working is that we don’t really care if Kim is with Ian or not. We don’t really care if she manages to rescue him or not.
What we actually care about, at this point, is whether anybody will ever know what’s happening in Afghanistan. Or whether the Network is just going to bury this story.
You see, we’ve seen Tina Fey go all the way to New York to try to save her job, but more importantly, to try to save the story: to try to convince the network executive that what’s happening in Afghanistan actually matters- that the people need to know. And, of course, in order to save her job and (potentially) in order to save the news coverage of the entire war effort in Afghanistan, she needs a huge story.
Ironically, this makes the formulaic complication of her Ian’s kidnapping even more problematic structurally, because the “bad thing” that happens is not only exactly what the audience is expecting, it’s also the thing that Kim, as a character, is most prepared to deal with… It’s all just too darn easy.
And why do I say it’s easy? Technically, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to rescue your boyfriend from Afghani warlords. It’s not easy to find out where he is. She has to go through all kinds of trials, but here’s the thing: what’s required to save him play directly to Kim’s strengths. After all, she’s a person who is addicted to adrenaline. She is a person who’s tough and strong. She is a person who is brave. She is a person who has always been willing to do just about anything for the story. So, in fact, for Kim, this is about the easiest test possible.
A real test would’ve had nothing to do with being brave and strong; a real test would’ve been a test about love. Is she going to choose love over “the story?” A real test would’ve sent her back to Fahim and forced her to acknowledge what she really felt for him. A real test would force her not to demonstrate the same traits she showed at the beginning of the movie, but to demonstrate a change.
What happens instead is the exact opposite. Kim does save her boyfriend, and Kim does get her big story and Kim does save her job and Kim does use her adrenaline junkie talents to the greatest of her ability: but Kim does all this without compromising any part of herself. In fact, she even conveniently has a videotape that prevents her from having to sleep with the minister who’s been trying to exploit her sexually the whole movie. She manages to do everything without changing anything about herself. And then, strangely, when it’s all over, she decides to give it up.
In a different structure, if she hadn’t already earned her happy ending without changing, that moment when she gives it up would be one of the most satisfying moments of the film. If we felt like she was giving it up for Fahim, if we felt like she was still attached to it, if we had isolated the moment that forced the choice to be made, this movie would have been an extraordinarily powerful little drama.
It could have been a movie about what it means to be at war with yourself and with a culture that’s so different from yours. And in this way, it could’ve been a story about having a war going on and not wanting to look: having a love affair going on and not wanting to look, having an internal journey going on and not wanting to look, which is not only the story of Kim’s character, but the story of the war in Afghanistan, and the way that we have perceived it as Americans.
And this is the funny thing; I actually think Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a great script. It’s just not a great final draft; it’s a great rough draft. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is filled with beautiful moments: some really powerful moments. There’s even a totally moving moment between Kim and Fahim at the very end where their hands touch for the first time as he hands Kim her luggage. There’s a really beautiful romance depicted, and there are a lot of moments of wonderful, unexpected humor. There is a very serious story about the war in Afghanistan, and how it was hijacked by the war in Iraq. There’s a political drama. There is so much value happening in the script. And, the truth is, it’s really normal to see a script like this in an early phase. It’s really normal for our early drafts to get hijacked by secondary characters, to pick up threads and then drop them without picking them up again, to bounce from theme to theme to theme to theme.
And if you find this happening to your script, I want you to remember that, even though, like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, it may not work in its current form, there is a different form, just a few drafts away that would’ve been truly beautiful.
So, if you find the themes of your movie changing- if you find yourself offering the audience one plate and then offering them a different one, you need to spend some time thinking about the real ‘hot relationships’ in your movie. Are you following those relationships, or are you getting additive and pasting on new threads that distract us from the story. You want to spend some time thinking about your theme? Are you fully mining your theme, or are you bouncing from theme to theme to theme?
If you’re finding your work is episodic, like the writing of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, but that those episodes are not weaving into a structure, you want to ask yourself, “Well, how is my main character changing in relation to the theme? How can these different plates go together to create one beautiful dinner?”
All drafts go through ugly phases. All drafts start off like little babies, filled with promise, but still a little bit chubby, drooling on themselves and not quite able to walk. And our real goal as writers is not to get the great draft in the first draft. Our real goal is to find the beauty in the draft we have: to be merciless in cutting out characters like Ian, and passionate about taking a romance like the one between Kim and Fahim and pushing it as far and as deep as it can possibly go.
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