For obvious reasons, war movies typically follow the perspective of the soldier on the ground. So “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is immediately distinguished by its lead, a TV journalist breaking stories in Afghanistan during the mid-aughts. Tina Fey stars as as the reporter, Kim Baker (loosely based on Kim Barker, author of the memoir “The Taliban Shuffle,” on which the movie is based), and she rises to the challenge of the role that requires the former “30 Rock” actor to do a lot more than just adapt her comic voice to the story’s particulars.
Comedic and dramatic potential are present in equal measure in Baker’s narrative and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Focus,” “Crazy Stupid Love“) do well navigating some of the turns of her story, creating situations that allow Fey to alternate between sardonic and self-effacing wit. Odd casting decisions, however, and a script that flounders after establishing the strange “life during wartime” scenario, work against Fey’s performance.
Kim Baker is a writer churning out copy for talking heads at a news organization in Manhattan. When the opportunity arises to work in Afghanistan she takes the leap, driven not by ambition, but by a desire to break her personal and professional inertia. One airplane ride next to a duct-taped window later, and she’s breathing in the hot air of Kabul in Afghanistan, bright orange “city girl” duffel bag in hand. (That air, deadpans her local producer Fahim, played by Christopher Abbott, “is heavily polluted with feces.”)
Ensconced in a compound in Kabul that acts as dorm, makeshift edit bay and party house in which journos, their crews, local “fixers” and security teams create a distilled and skewed replica of Western life, Kim faces the conflict of her own insecurities and ambitions. She finds unlikely support from her hunky Australian security escort Nic (Stephen Peacocke), rival reporter Tanya (Margot Robbie), and an amorous freelancer photographer, played by Martin Freeman with an endearing brogue.
Outside the compound, however, Kim makes one newbie mistake after another. She doesn’t know military lingo, or even how to distinguish between local advice from a joke and her first run as an embedded reporter turns into a firefight. In that moment, against even her own expectations, Kim leaps right into the fray, camera at the ready. She impresses the Marines and earns her wings as a field-tested pro, and she’s off into the tense wartime environment.
It’s at this moment when “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” starts to stumble. Once Kim is established in Kabul, the film’s drama dries up like a date left in the noon sun. There’s a romantic subplot, a couple very slowly simmering notes of competition with other reporters, and bit of drama between Kim and the network brass at home. “I need a win” becomes her mantra, but there’s a big difference between examining Kim’s actions when she’s under pressure and simply watching her flounder. The film chooses the latter.
One major miscalculation is casting Alfred Molina to play a rising Afghan official Ali Massoud Sadiq in a big suit and pasted-on beard. The cultural dress-up aspects of the character are impossible to ignore. And the character’s awkward sexual predation, aimed at Kim, might work in the “30 Rock” version of this story, but in this context, the way the character is written makes Molina come off like an actor in a very different movie.
Christopher Abbott is also playing an Afghan character, and his own whitewashed role is complicated by his excellent performance — he and Fey share some of the film’s best scenes. But the fact that Abbott is very good doesn’t change the fact that this is the same sort of unnecessary racial casting that has been called out in recent films like “Gods of Egypt” and “Exodus: Gods And Kings,” and there’s no reason to give “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” a pass even if it’s not quite as egregious.
Even with the film’s somewhat directionless second half there’s a lot of potentially good material in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” Fey’s Kim and Robbie’s Tanya aren’t just the main characters. They also drive the film’s point of view, which is oriented entirely around being a woman working within multiple male-dominated cultures — media, the military, and the culture of Afghanistan. But it’s a perspective that isn’t always explored in a satisfying manner due to the script’s contentious relationship between comedy and drama.
For example, Fey and Molina get to play out one great confrontation, which really plays into the development of her character as a confident, independent person. But sandwiched in between several other scenes in which wonky comedic notes dominate, it also undermines her character’s arc.
It’s a mistake to expect the achievement of a film like “M.A.S.H.” but the drama and war-zone observations in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” are strong enough to make some of the “SNL“-type comedy beats unwelcome. Fey’s work is strong, yet it’s difficult to squash the impression that this could be a more powerful movie, and an even more significant showcase for Tina Fey. [C]