Tina Fey gives her finest, funniest big screen performance by essentially doing in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” what she did so well on TV’s “30 Rock.”
She plays the lovelorn, put-upon and insecure woman in a man’s world, and surrounds herself with some absolutely hilarious co-stars.
There’s something just-so-right about seeing “the forgotten war” (Afghanistan) through the eyes of America’s smart, 40something sweetheart. It’s a Fey-out-of-water travelogue with Fey, as real-life TV newswriter Kim Barker, childless and single and north of 30, accepts re-assignment in the early 2000s to a war zone rendered a backwater by the invasion of Iraq.
She leaves behind her job “writing for stupid, pretty people” (news anchors), her beau (Josh Charles) for “the Kabubble,” Kabul, another place for Fey/Barker to be show she can be a naive klutz. She asks the wrong questions, brings the wrong backpack (bright orange) and takes stupid risks because she doesn’t know any better.
Her fixer, Fahim (Christopher Abbott) gently tries to set her straight. Her colleague, a surprisingly sassy Margot Robbie, warns her about how attractive she’s going to be to every man in country.
“You’re like a what, 6, maybe 7 back in New York?”
And the Marine officer (Billy Bob Thornton) she deals with most is the most blunt of all — growling about her “4-10-4” status (A “4” in New York, a 10, briefly, in Kabul, back to a 4 when she leaves.) and offering her a “wet hooch” without ever cracking his thousand-yard-scowl.
That’s a tent with a shower. The military runs on slang (“Zero stupid thirty” is very early in the AM) and acronyms, as does “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” Abbreviate the title, kids.
See Fey fumble into her first firefight. Hear Tina curse like a Bangor barmaid, something the film’s title in acronym form foretells. And through her, we see this world (actually, New Mexico) — clouds of U.S. dollars literally blowing away in the wind, Western women like Barker cursed and abused by an endless array of devout, women-oppressing locals — blood and carnage during their “embed” patrols, out-of-control drunken revels many nights.
Alfred Molina is the funniest he’s been in years as the rising star of Afghan politics who feigns interest in keeping Taliban ideas like running the rural districts on sharia law even as he’s coming on to the fetching Ms. Barker at every turn.
And Martin Freeman of British and American public TV’s “Sherlock” is the wiseacre, war-coverage-weary Scottish reporter who makes one move after another on Barker.
“An accent’s not the same as a personality,” she reminds him.
There’s a lot of dimly-lit, hand-held filming to get us into the nervous rush of a combat zone. But the best sequence in this Glenn Ficarra/John Requa action/comedy is when they put Barker/Fey into a burqa, the “blue prison” her fixer calls it. Covered, head-to-toe, seeing the patriarchy of the Islamic world at its most retrograde (Islamic Law enforcers “executing” TV sets) reminds us that political correctness aside, this is a world we have no connection to, that is beyond our efforts to “help” traverse the gulf that would get it into the 21st century.
War lords are “businessmen,” the poppy trade was all they had and no amount of school building/well-digging and Western pop music will change it overnight.
The filmmakers (“I Love You Philip Morris”) go on well past its climax and the movie’s indelicate assessment of Afghan culture and the bubble Westerners must live in while trying to “save it” won’t be to every taste. But Fey and “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” strike just the right tone (occasionally) in reminding us the endless nature of this mission, the grim effort to hold the American public’s attention long enough to accomplish it and the gonzo adrenaline junkies who take on that last and impossibly difficult mission.
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images
Cast: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Josh Charles
Credits: Directed by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, script by Robert Carlock, based on the Kim Barker book. A Paramount release.
Running time: 1:52