If you’re wondering whether or not Whiskey Tango Foxtrot marks something of a departure for Tina Fey, the answer is yes and no. It’s based on a true story and mostly takes place in an active war zone, but it’s also very funny and Fey’s role as journalist Kim Baker seems tailor-made for her. Happily, the end result is her best big screen leading role to date.
Fey’s long-time writing partner Robert Carlock provides the script, based on Baker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days In Afghanistan And Pakistan, whose New York Times review observed that the author presented herself “as a Tina Fey character.” Unsurprisingly, the transition from page to screen has been very smooth since Paramount optioned the book, even with various artistic liberties taken to make it more movie-shaped.
As the film has it, when Kim is sent to Afghanistan to cover Operation Enduring Freedom in 2003, her unique qualifications are that she is unmarried and childless. Still, in need of a change, she throws herself into what is supposed to be a three month assignment. Once in Kabul, she’s ingratiated into the “Kabubble”, the press camp in which the country’s “vice and virtue” regulations aren’t upheld and raucous parties puncture the monotony for the boozed-up and horny journalists.
Social pursuits aside, Kim becomes hooked on the thrill of reporting from a war zone alongside her colleagues – younger correspondent Tanya (Margot Robbie), photojournalist Iain (Martin Freeman) and cameraman Tall Brian (Nicholas Braun) – under the watchful eyes of security man Nic (Steve Peacocke) and exasperated Marine General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), even as the invasion of Iraq pushes Afghanistan down the news agenda back home.
Fey isn’t exactly doing anything that we’ve never seen her do before, but she’s the best there is at what she does, which serves to make what she does as Kim feel instantly relatable, without either dredging up Liz Lemon or falling into the culturally tone-deaf ‘white lady abroad’ exploits of Sex & The City 2. She also shares strong chemistry with Freeman, whose Scottish photojournalist is just a wee bit stereotypical – with their sheer combined likeability, they’re a match made in heaven, or at least somewhere a bit north of Glasgow.
Behind the camera, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are closer to their early I Love You Phillip Morris form after the more mainstream Crazy Stupid Love and last year’s nuts-and-bolts con artist thriller Focus. The location work and occasional action setpieces in this one present more obvious technical challenges, but Ficarra and Requa are consummate gag artists and it’s enjoyable to see them directing another dark comedy.
There’s a surprisingly harmonious mashing of sensibilities between the pair and sitcom supremos Fey and Carlock. 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are live-action cartoons and although the directors don’t carry over that energy wholesale, they tap the same source even while making much racier gags about foreign affairs. For instance, the punchline of Robbie’s first scene provoked audible gasps in our screening, right before the laughter started. Tanya isn’t used as well as the film goes on, but her early stuff makes this Robbie’s funniest and most provocative turn since The Wolf Of Wall Street.
As a result, the film has its fair share of satirical bite, but it’s more than content to be a little sillier and dirtier than most of the War on Terror movies we’ve seen. Out of the film’s more acerbic zingers about the war, General Hollanek’s inappropriate and entirely on-the-record description of Operation Enduring Freedom (“This war is like fucking a gorilla – you keep going until the gorilla wants to stop”) is one that stands up next to cinema’s most profound quotes on conflict.
But first and foremost, it’s a character piece and it’s not aiming to make any grandiose statement on modern warfare. Ricky Gervais recently tangled with similar themes about overseas conflict and the US media in his Netflix Original movie Special Correspondents, and while that film was loftier and more detached by design, this excels where that film faltered, by bothering to get to know its characters on the street level of the subject.
It’s accordingly more serious too and although it potters along hilariously for the most part, the raised stakes in the second half shake off any notion that it’s ignoring the gravity of the situation. This comes through in an early sequence where Kim interviews a corporal about his service, which turns out to have a great corresponding pay-off scene at the end.
Elsewhere, your mileage may vary on the standard Hollywood race-bending in casting ambiguously European actors as Afghan characters, but it’s by no means casual or off-hand here as other offenders, and both of the principal cast members in question are very good. Alfred Molina is reliably funny as a lecherous government official and Girls‘ Christopher Abbott’s role is sweet and understated, as a fixer who repeatedly spares everyone’s blushes when translating less than friendly epithets for Kim and the military’s benefit.
Arguably, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot gets away with more obvious oversights like these because it’s mostly successful in what it intends to do, retaining the personality of the source material while also making the effort to entertain. With well-drawn characters and snappy dialogue, this is a winning war comedy that feels a lot more insightful than several more satirical or self-serious films on its subject, and easily represents Tina Fey’s strongest foray into movie stardom yet.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is in UK cinemas now.