Tina Fey’s performance as a reluctant first-time war correspondent ill-equipped to handle life in Afghanistan is the reason to see Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Fey delivers a performance that’s complex and restrained, and it’s easily her best work in a feature film to date. There are lighter moments in the script inspired by newspaper correspondent Kim Barker’s memoir, but surprisingly it’s in the film’s more dramatic scenes that Fey really shines.
The film’s inspired by Kim Barker’s experiences, however in the movie Fey’s character’s name is Kim Baker, most likely because there are significant changes made to Barker’s story. In the film version of Barker’s book, Baker is recruited by her network to go to Afghanistan to cover the war after all of the station’s normal reporters have moved on to the war in Iraq. Kim’s usual day at work consists of writing stories for pretty on-air personalities to read, but because she’s single she’s one of a handful of people asked to head out to the war zone.
After a short bit of self-contemplation, Kim volunteers for the dangerous assignment, leaving behind her boyfriend to tend to her plants and collect the mail. Once on foreign soil, Kim’s quickly overwhelmed and immediately realizes she’s out of her league. Fortunately, fellow correspondent Tanya (Margot Robbie) steps in and takes her under her gorgeous wing, spelling out the dos and don’ts of this world of hard-partying, sexually free journalists, interpreters, and bodyguards Kim’s now a part of.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot takes liberties with Barker’s memoir, inserting love interests and switching Barker’s job from print to television. However, the essence of Barker’s book is there, just sexed up to make it more appealing on screen. The film provides a look into the world of journalists embedded with the troops, but mostly explores what happens during reporters’ downtime. Hook-ups happen, getting drunk is used as a way to forget about the dangers of being in a foreign country during wartime, and the clash of cultures is occasionally played for laughs to lighten the tone.
Tina Fey leads the cast and is terrific as Kim Baker, but her co-stars aren’t exactly slouches. Margot Robbie is a scene-stealer as Kim’s closest friend in Afghanistan and Billy Bob Thornton redeems himself from the mess that was his last feature film appearance, Our Brand is Crisis, with an outstanding performance here as a cynical General who begrudgingly comes to genuinely care for Kim. Martin Freeman is fun to watch as he sinks his teeth into playing Kim’s war photographer boyfriend, a real lothario who surprises everyone – including himself – by falling for Kim. And although Hollywood should be well past the need to cast white actors in ethnic roles, Alfred Molina does a fine job playing an Afghan government official who desires more than just a working relationship with Kim.
WTF avoids making any political statements about the war, so if you’re hesitant to check it out because you don’t want another Hollywood film preaching to you about what America should or should not be doing, you can remove that element from your decision-making process. This is strictly a character-driven comedy/drama with very little action and no overt statements on the political reasoning behind being in Afghanistan. If anything, the film reminds us to not forget about our troops serving overseas even when they’re being ignored by the media.
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images
Directed By: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: March 4, 2016