The big achievement of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is that it does two things simultaneously that would seem to be in contradiction. It presents life as a Western journalist in Afghanistan as horrible in every way – dangerous, ugly and miserable. And it also shows how that life could be attractive, even addictive. It doesn’t just tell you this, but makes you feel it.
Based on “The Taliban Shuffle,” a memoir by Kim Barker, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” stars Tina Fey as Barker, who was the Chicago Tribune’s South Asia bureau chief from 2004 to 2009. The movie changes things a bit. Here Barker is working as a copywriter for a TV network when she impulsively volunteers for the Afghanistan assignment. This little alteration of fact makes the character more of an innocent abroad, while conveniently making her business less cerebral and more visual.
She has a baptism by fire in an early scene. Working as an “embed” with the Marines, she’s part of a convoy that’s attacked. With machine gun bullets bouncing off the vehicle, she nervously unbuckles her seat belt, and the first thing we think is that she is about to panic. Instead, she picks up a video camera, jumps out of the truck and starts shooting the battle from inside the thick of it.
This is an important moment and in several ways. First, Fey persuades us to believe this woman would actually do that. Second, it’s the moment that we realize that this is the story of an extraordinary person, someone who might seem ordinary in most ways, but has drives and impulses that can only be answered by this kind of mad environment. Third, it signals that “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is not a comedy as we usually understand it. It’s more like an unblinking presentation of absurdity on a mass scale.
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Robert Carlock’s screenplay is impressive in what it doesn’t say. No one ever mentions that the appeal of this life is intimately entwined with the possibility of being dead the next minute. It’s just understood. Suddenly this woman is riding helicopters into war zones, and we get it. This is nothing but now, which makes life inside that rickety hotel, where Kim lives with other journalists, a kind of middle-aged, booze-soaked version of the last days of Pompeii. Like spring break with wrinkles.
Margot Robbie plays Tanya, Kim’s best friend and professional rival, and it’s a real asset to have someone with that kind of a star wattage in a supporting role. She’s utterly believable as a TV star, but she fills in the character’s undercurrents as well, suggesting that there is something slightly wrong with her, as though she’s found a semi-healthy channel for self-destructive impulse. Martin Freeman plays a roguish Scottish photographer, and at first the role seems odd casting for an actor of Freeman’s sensitivity. Then it doesn’t.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is by far Tina Fey’s best movie. It makes use of her comic sense, but also of her watchful wariness and underlying wistfulness. And there are none of the false conflicts and crises that you get in the last third of most comedies. In fact, one of the best things about “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is that it has no particular climax at all.
In place of a story with a classic structure, we get an emotionally honest rendering of a episode, like something really interesting that happened in somebody’s life. And so it feels real.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Rated: R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images. Starring: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie and Martin Freeman. Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Running time: 112 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.