“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” about a news producer challenging herself by becoming a war reporter in Afghanistan, is also about Tina Fey challenging herself by headlining a movie that’s not an all-out comedy and doesn’t pair her with a familiar costar. In both cases, the venture into uncharted territory is a success, though not without its hiccups. The journalist finds self-actualization; and Tina Fey proves she’s a real live movie star. Everybody wins!
Based on Kim Barker’s memoir “The Taliban Shuffle,” the film was written by “30 Rock” writer/producer Robert Carlock and produced by “SNL” godfather Lorne Michaels — comfortable collaborators for Fey, who optioned the book two years ago with an eye toward playing the lead. The fictionalized version of Kim Barker, named Kim Baker, is new to the business of foreign correspondence when she arrives in Kabul in 2003 for what she expects will be a three-month stint. The journalists’ housing has a dorm-like atmosphere (“Jump Around” is bumping when we’re first introduced), and the only other woman around, BBC reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), is glad to see her.
Thankfully, the film quickly moves past the jokes about Kim being unfamiliar with military lingo and local customs, and establishes her as a competent, albeit frazzled journalist. The commander of the Marines she’s embedded with, Gen. Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), takes her seriously much sooner than his type of character usually does movie situations like this. The unnamed TV network Kim works for has provided a hunky Kiwi security guard (Stephen Peacocke), a cameraman (Nicholas Braun), and a “fixer” named Fahim (Christopher Abbott, for some reason) who helps Kim navigate Kabul. It is Fahim who observes that Kim seems to be getting addicted to the rush of covering live, dangerous news stories (and here the film backs up to inform us that before she came to Afghanistan, Kim was in a complacent rut).
Kim’s three-month stint turns into an open-ended stay. This decision isn’t exactly caused, but certainly isn’t discouraged, by the breakup of her long-distance relationship with a boyfriend (Josh Charles) who, the minute we met him, we knew she wasn’t going to keep anyway. As one of a small number of females in the press corps, Kim has plenty of options for a fling, including an abrasive Scottish photojournalist named Iain (Martin Freeman). She’s also hit on regularly by Afghanistan’s gentlemanly new attorney general, Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina, for some reason), whose advances she finds amusing.
With its specific focus on a single character with a limited viewpoint, the movie isn’t about the war (much less the politics behind it) but about how covering it provides Kim with an opportunity to find herself. This narrow perspective puts the film at risk of treating the war too lightly, as nothing more than the backdrop for some American lady’s personal journey. There are twinges of such insensitivity — casting Westerners as the two major Afghan characters doesn’t help — but for the most part, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“I Love You, Phillip Morris,” “Crazy Stupid Love”) treat the violence of war with the weight it deserves, sometimes to shocking effect.
Fey was smart to choose as her first semi-serious role a character not far removed from her “30 Rock” and “SNL” personas. In a lot of ways, Kim Baker is the non-farcical version of Liz Lemon, the real-world counterpart to a cartoon, and Fey handles the dramatic moments well. She and the film both are just serious enough to be taken seriously, even if you can tell they’d prefer to be funny.
B (1 hr., 52 min.; )