‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’
Directors:
Glenn Ficara, John Requa
Stars: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Tina Fey war comedy” sets “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” up to look like something it’s not quite. It is a movie where the performer works her self-effacing Liz Lemon routine in a locale just slightly more nerve-wracking than NBC. It is a movie where soldiers casually cite “Predator” as a reason they enlisted. But it’s not “30 Rock Goes to Afghanistan,” and it’s not even a satire. It’s a dramedy that teems with sharp (and, yes, often funny) details about life in the epicenter of wartime, more human than joke machine, even if that’s eventually to a fault.

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A lot of the zanier, crazier bits and episodes presumably come from the source: Kim Barker’s “The Taliban Shuffle,” which chronicled her three-year stint as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the mid-aughts. (In the interest of keeping things simple, the film version only covers the former.) Bored of her desk job journo life in the States, Fey’s Kim whimsically agrees to a stint overseas. Epically unprepared — she doesn’t stop to think a bright orange backpack makes for bad camouflage — she finds herself forever improv-ing on the job, but getting good enough that she learns not only is waging war an addiction, but so is covering it.

“Whisky Tango Foxtrot” doesn’t have a lot of narrative drive, and when it tries to ratchet up the stakes — including with a token love interest, plus a rescue mission — it can barely commit. That her love interest is with a rakish war photographer who’s introduced as a lecherous cad (played by Martin Freeman, with Scots accent) is a good sign of the film’s slightly darkened heart. Friendships are always uneasy, often forged because they’re in the same sitch. Kim becomes besties with a forthright fellow reporter (Margot Robbie), introduced bluntly informing Kim she’s “Kabul cute” — you know, pretty alright back home, but a hottie in more extreme climes. Everyone drinks all the time, sometimes right before an explosion forces soused reporters in front of cameras, trying to sell a war being upstaged by Iraq. It’s such a topsy-turvy world that even the gung-ho general (a reliably prickly Billy Bob Thornton) who asks Kim not to bang his men turns out to be one of the more likable guys.

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Speaking of Thornton, “Whiskey” directors Glenn Ficara and Glenn Requa co-wrote “Bad Santa,” and they know how to stay cockeyed and bemused in ugly situations. They comment lightly, even funnily on sexism without full-on condescending to another culture. They let Kim be bumbling but competent, stopping far short of girl-fall-down jokes a la Drew Barrymore vehicles. They know to include a scene where she’s mocked for recounting her white American girl sad backstory of heartache and ennui, in a place where sad backstories can be quite a bit worse than sad.

As it wears on the balance tilts more towards the serious, eventually becoming less “MASH” and more “Air America.” What started off as a film that perhaps too jokily plays the Chipmunks Christmas song ultimately winds up one that earnestly blasts Radiohead and The National. It’s a war movie sometimes at war with itself — savvy and hip but also a film that casts Westerners (Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbot) as Afghans. Then again, Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott at least are fine actors, and the movie has enough stranger-than-fiction details to power it through the soggy morass and occasional misjudgments and fly through the finish line, victorious.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge