Between the misfire that was “Our Brand Is Crisis” and the unalloyed disaster of “Rock the Kasbah,” it hasn’t been a particularly edifying period for fish-out-of-water stories featuring funny Americans bumbling their way to self-actualization in exotic, war-torn locales.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” an amenable, easygoing version of the story starring Tina Fey, is the least objectionable of the bunch, though it falls prey to some similarly regrettable assumptions. Adapted from journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir “The Taliban Shuffle,” which recounted her experiences reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Chicago Tribune, this plunge into the adrenaline-fueled world of war reporting winds up being surprisingly winning and low-key, giving Fey a welcome chance to dial down the gag-centric humor that defines most of her comedy work, and to deliver a warm, understated portrayal of a woman who’s more rueful and self-aware than zanily madcap.
Kim Baker (the “r” has been dropped to maximize creative license) arrives in Afghanistan in 2003, having hit the wall professionally as a network news writer and seeking adventure and change. She’s given a room in a Kabul apartment building known as the “Fun House,” a den of iniquity that’s part frat house, part forward operating base. Among her instant friends include a Lara Logan-esque TV journalist named Tanya (Margot Robbie), a dashing Scottish photographer named Ian (Martin Freeman) and Baker’s “fixer,” a quietly observant local named Fahim.
The fact that Fahim is played by American actor Christopher Abbott – and a Kabul politician is played by British actor Alfred Molina – is no less tone deaf for the fact that both men deliver sensitive, funny performances. The sight of white actors donning beards and Afghan pakols to depict “foreign” characters is wincingly off-putting, as is the tendency of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” to present Afghanistan as a dusty, chaotic backdrop for its heroine’s personal catharsis. (The correspondents’ clique is constantly referred to as the “Kabubble.”)
At one point, Kim refers to “the real world” as if Afghanistan was somehow a piquant detour, which might capture her own journey into the hothouse atmosphere of war reporting but also speaks volumes about the film’s own solipsism.
Still, considering the film’s own “Kabubble” mindset, Fey and her directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, find real emotion in the character’s journey, which includes a brief, very believable love affair and a growing friendship with Fahim that results in an affectingly choreographed encounter toward the film’s end. (Billy Bob Thornton also deserves credit for his delightful cameo as a gruff Marine general.) Baker even has a gratifying moment of reckoning, during which one of the first soldiers she interviews on her beat delivers a moving speech about getting over self-pity and moving on.
As evidenced in such past films as “I Love You, Philip Morris” and “Crazy, Stupid Love,” Ficarra and Requa like tonally off-kilter films that don’t fit comfortably into ready-made genres. True to that ethos, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” possesses plenty of laid-back humor, flawlessly delivered by Fey, but its wry tone and pathos keep it from being an out-and-out comedy.
That’s the strength of a film that, at its best, captures the dizzyingly contradictory feelings of attraction and horror toward the life-and-death stakes of war, and of feeling both at home and at sea in a cacophonous, confounding world. True to its title, as well as its flawed but sympathetic protagonist, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is more confused than cynical or opportunistic. Its bewilderment is contagious, and ultimately endearing.
Two and a half stars. Rated R. Contains pervasive obscenity, some sexual content, drug use and violent war imagery. 111 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.