Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.
Tina Fey’s previous efforts at semi-dramatic roles, in mediocre, forgettable movies like Admission and This Is Where I Leave You, have failed to capture the sharpness of her best comedic work, but she finds a perfect middle ground between sarcasm and vulnerability in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, based on the memoir The Taliban Shuffle by American war correspondent Kim Barker. The screenplay from Fey’s 30 Rock collaborator Robert Carlock fictionalizes a lot about Barker’s life, but it manages to feel genuine even when playing loose with the facts.
Fey plays the similarly named Kim Baker, a cable-news producer who spends time writing bland copy for bland on-air personalities and wondering if there’s anything more to life. She gets the opportunity to find out when she’s offered a position reporting from Afghanistan in 2004, for what’s initially meant to be three months. Kim’s early fumbles as a clueless American in a foreign country are a bit predictable, but the movie gets past that relatively quickly, as Kim settles into the weird, insular bubble of expatriates in Kabul, and comes into her own as a savvy reporter.
She befriends a glamorous British journalist (Margot Robbie) and hooks up with a Scottish photographer (Martin Freeman), but just as important are the connections she’s able to make with American military personnel and local residents. Although it’s set in a war zone, WTF isn’t a political movie, and it refrains from trying to make any big statements about American foreign policy. Instead, it gets its point across in smaller moments, as Kim fights through prejudices and bureaucratic tangles to bring valuable stories to her viewers back home.
She also fights to define her own identity, and the movie smartly balances its wider concerns with Kim’s personal journey, which never comes across as phony or self-important. It helps that Fey is likeable without being cloying, and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus) know how to underplay most of the potentially sentimental elements. WTF isn’t exactly a comedy, but it has plenty of funny moments, showcasing the gallows humor that reporters rely upon when faced with death all around them. The movie creates such an inviting, good-humored vibe that when reality inevitably intrudes, it makes a serious impact on both the characters and the audience.