Tina Fey Has Serious Chops in ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’

CHICAGO – Tina Fey’s film career as an actress has been spotty at best. Whenever she takes a role outside of her “Tina Fey” character (This is Where I Leave You, Admission), she seems leaden and lost. Well, in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot she finds her footing, and her Kim Baker character is complex, courageous and yes, sardonic. Fey is able to combine it all and deliver a performance that enhances a great story of covering the war in Afghanistan as a TV reporter, with all the inconsistencies and indignities that happens in a war zone, in a far-off land in a strange time.

What is admirable is that Fey anchors the film, even though her character isn’t dominant. There are other elements of the film that contribute to the overall character, and that is all in the adaptation of screenwriter Robert Carlock, in addition to the nicely structured narrative by directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. The reporter’s story has been a staple of American cinema over the years, and this is a fine inclusion to that canon. Although not as direct a statement on war as Salvador or The Killing Fields, it has a decently wary perspective, and throws in some surprising empathy regarding the broader “enemy” and the warriors in an endless war.

Kim Baker (Fey) is a functional writer for a national broadcast outlet (nameless) in New York City. Her life is on idle, with a boyfriend and an urban life but no direction. When her producer asks for volunteers to spend “three months” embedded with troops in Afghanistan, she volunteers. The three month assignment turns into three years.

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Image: Paramount Pictures

While in country, she encounters media rivals like Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman). Her military aid is represented by the no-nonsense Marine General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), and her government contact becomes Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina). Her adventures involve a new relationship, some double-cross and war zone partying. In the end, it is an eye opening and life changing experience for her.

This is based on a reporter’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker. In the film, Tina Fey is Kim “Baker,” and they change Barker’s real-life role as a print reporter to a TV reporter as Fey portrays it. That doesn’t change the sense of Baker’s journey in the harsh war zone, and the elements of the book are crispy focused in Robert Carlock’s screenplay adaptation. The film starts out a little soft, which generates a fear that Fey will be too cutesy (as her “Liz Lemon” persona tends to be), but as soon as the war issues get ramped up, the character becomes clearer.  

What was most satisfying is that Fey was up to the challenge, and never falters as the path of the role evolves. It was a breakthrough for her as an actress, because she challenged that former persona simply by being more adult – getting (realistically) drunk, having questionable affairs and risking her career by being reckless. There were also consequences to all this life stuff, and the result of the character’s decisions are also in the performance mix. Remarkably, at some point Tina Fey disappears and is Kim Baker.

The supporting players were essentially cast, and more importantly provided more than decoration in a “starring Tina Fey” movie. The underrated Margot Robbie does a duplicitous turn as Baker’s friend and rival. Martin Freeman disappears into a roustabout who softens as he finds a bit of love. Billy Bob Thornton, who is often upstaged by what kind of hairpiece he wears, does a fulfilling turn as a world weary Marine general, as much annoyed as heroic.

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Image: Paramount Pictures

The film’s trailer, understandably but unfortunately, has to highlight the comedy in the film, and there are amusing moments. But mostly the film tries to offer a precise understanding regarding life in a war zone. Yes, there is gallows humor, but there is also a well-portrayed frustration and desperation. What the film properly does is put the viewer in the reporter shoes, even showing a stark contrast once Kim Baker comes back to civilization. In all, it succeeds by being informative, poignant and entertaining.

When Tina Fey did Admission – a mostly terrible film – I admonished her for trying to be Katharine Hepburn or some such character type. The lesson here is not to be permanently dismissive, for Fey has proved through Whiskey Tango Foxtrot that she can be substantial with the right story and ingredients.

Paramount Pictures Presents Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, opening everywhere on March 4th. Featuring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina and Billy Bob Thornton. Screenplay adapted by Robert Carlock, based on a memoir by Kim Barker. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Rated “R”