Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Posted by Joel Copling on March 3, 2016

Here is a nice surprise: The advertisements for "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" rather deceptively sold the film as the consummate Tina Fey comedy--amusing and, above all, silly in an affectionate way. The reality is a bit more complex than that, especially considering the fact that the film is, instead, a dramedy that happens to star the actress and comedienne in the role of real-life journalist Kim Barker (whose surname in this dramatization loses the first "r" and upon whose book Robert Carlock's screenplay is based). There are moments of light, comic material, but the main thrust is dramatic in nature. A little is lost in translation as her romantic fate is made a far more central focus than it needs to be, but it is of no matter.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's film is perceptive about both sides of a touchy international crisis. The setting is the interim of three years (2003 to 2006) in the company of Kim Baker as the journalist who formerly wrote news copy is sent to the front lines in Afghanistan to report on the activities of our military forces in the region. There are no politics here of the Washington, D.C., kind--only the duty of a news organization that wants to document the truth of the War on Terror to its viewing audience. The story must reach a conclusion eventually, and it's not an enormous surprise when Geri Taub (Cherry Jones), the head of the station, tells Kim that there is no audience for such a story anymore.

It certainly isn't what Kim wants to hear after more than two years spent in occasionally the direct line of fire from Afghan insurgents. By this point, she's had to extend her stay in the Middle Eastern country, originally intended to be three months, to more than 24. Her fiance couldn't remain faithful in the face of such a commitment, her partner when she arrives Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) is as nice as she is self-reliant (sometimes in a less-than-agreeable way), and the locals doubly treat her with contempt when she deigns both to speak to the men and to have her head occasionally uncovered in public. The toll upon her is considerable: This situation is the water, and she is the fish.

The central focus of the story, though, largely concerns the other side of the conflict. She is given protection by a reluctant commanding officer (Billy Bob Thornton) in the form of Fahim (Christopher Abbott), an interpreter who largely spares her direct translation. Together, they trawl across the sand-dry city of Kabul (and several others later) to interview the political (and terrorist) leaders housed (or hiding) in the city. Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina) even fancies himself a friend of Kim's. She also befriends Ian MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), a Scottish war reporter who's seen kidnap multiple times and with whom Kim strikes up a sweet-natured flirtation.

The undoubted secret weapon in the film's arsenal, though, is Fey, who excels here as a woman in an unfamiliar series of circumstances to which she become accustomed quickly. Her life depends on it, and all the comedic additions to urgent material cannot fully take away the desperation of her situation. Fey's performance rises to that occasion and builds a complex character, to boot. It's almost a disappointment that the third act's tension is largely (even with kidnap as the set-up for a "Zero Dark Thirty"-esque climax scored to a Radiohead song) romantic in nature. Luckily, the desperation is ultimately what drives "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," an effective study of political and journalistic squabbling in the midst of warfare.

Film Information

Tina Fey (Kim Baker), Margot Robbie (Tanya Vanderpoel), Martin Freeman (Ian MacKelpie), Christopher Abbott (Fahim Ahmadzai), Billy Bob Thornton (Gen. Hollanek), Alfred Molina (Ali Massoud Sadiq), Nicholas Braun (Tall Brian), Stephen Peacocke (Nic), Sheila Vand (Shakira Khar), Evan Jonigkeit (Coughlin).

Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and written by Robert Carlock, based on the book "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan" by Kim Barker.

Rated R (pervasive language, sexual content, drug use, violent war images).

112 minutes.

Released on March 4, 2016.