‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’
Directors: Glenn Ficara, John Requa
Stars: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie
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.
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