Wartime comedies can be hard to pull off, especially when it involves a war that’s still so present in many minds. Still, even that can’t be used as an excuse for why last fall’s Rock the Kasbah starring Bill Murray was such a disaster.
By contrast, the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot adaptation of Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle—a much better title than what someone in Paramount’s marketing department came up with*—will be of interest to fans of 30 Rock since it stars Tina Fey and is adapted by her writing and producing partner Robert Carlock.
Kim Barker is renamed Kim Baker for the sake of Fey’s portrayal as we flashback to her first assignment to Kabul in 2003, just as another more prominent war is breaking out in Iraq. She quickly gets into the flow of things while being one of only two women there—the other being the British correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie)—and eventually gets romantically involved with Scottish photographer Iain (Martin Freeman), who makes it harder for her to leave when she realizes it’s time to go home.
Once you get past the fact Fey has less range as an actor than others from the comedy realm (Kristin Wiig, for instance), WTF isn’t a bad movie, although it isn’t a comedy in the sense that it’s full of slapstick moments or quippy one-liners; Carlock and Fey do find plenty of good times to throw in some of the humor they’ve done so well on television for years.
On arrival in Afghanistan, Fey’s portrayal of Baker is a little ditzy compared to previous performances, but chances are that was done to help get the audience inured for a film that does take a number of serious turns. In fact, the film gets even better once shit starts getting real.
It’s really amazing to see how directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have evolved and grown as filmmakers since their early days of writing Bad Santa and Richard Linklater’s terrible Bad News Bears remake. Much of why WTF works so well is because they’ve surrounded Fey with a standout cast. including Robbie (co-star of their previous film Focus), who is so amazing at everything she does. Indeed, consider that her cameo in The Big Short is often the only thing many people remember about that movie, and it’s obvious she has a tangible onscreen presence. Robbie works surprisingly well as a friendly but competitive foil to Fey despite their very different styles and backgrounds.
Christopher Abbott, star of last year’s indie drama James White, is quite exceptional as Kim’s translator, helping to keep things grounded, something that’s harder to do whenever Alfred Molina shows up as a horny local diplomat who wants Kim to be his “special friend.” Yes, it is “whitewashing” to cast Western actors as Afghan characters, but they’re both so good it’s easy to forgive this decision.
To the filmmakers’ credit, they work hard to get things right while otherwise maintaining some semblance of accuracy. They also reunite with their Bad Santa star Billy Bob Thornton, who is well cast as the Marines’ commanding general; it’s one of his better roles in some time.
As we learn, war journalists and photographers get easily caught up in the adrenaline of wartime, but Kim finds it more and more difficult to get her stories on air, setting up one of WTF’s most important messages: that our soldiers abroad should never be forgotten even when there’s juicier news. It’s not something that never feels preachy but when Kim returns to New York to confront the head of her network, it becomes obvious that the corporate bottom line sometimes makes it easy to forget more important things.
The film does get considerably better as it goes along and more emotions come into play including the romantic angle that’s actually quite touching, and a lot of why this mix of tones works so well can be attributed to Ficarra and Requa’s growth as filmmakers.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot won’t be for everyone—even avid 30 Rock fans might feel like they’re watching CNN circa 2003 at times—but there’s so much to enjoy and appreciate about this movie, especially after the awful Rock the Kasbah.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot opens on Friday, March 4.
*The film’s title comes from the military call signs for the letters “W” “T” and “F” in case you couldn’t figure it out.