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War Becomes A Star Vehicle For Tina Fey In 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot'

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 3, 2016 10:24PM

Tina Fey in "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot." (Photo: Frank Masi, © 2015 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.)

Is our nightmarishly extended military presence in Afghanistan best served by a star vehicle for Tina Fey? Probably not, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot sheds little light on the longest war in American history. However, it was designed as seriocomic entertainment, and as far as that's concerned…mission accomplished.

Based loosely on reporter Kim Barker's memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the movie removes a consonant from the author's name to signify its license to "Hollywoodize" events. Where Barker was a foreign correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, Fey's Kim Baker works for a CNN-like television network and accepts an assignment to Afghanistan mainly to break out of a midlife crisis.

Once there, she is welcomed into the hard-partying press bunker by a more established, more glamorous rival (Margot Robbie of The Wolf of Wall Street) and quickly overcomes her uncertainty about the assignment with an up-close report on troops under fire. Her translator and guide (Christopher Abbott of James White and HBO's Girls) helps her navigate the region and its gender roles, while also warning her about war reporting's addictive quality.

When her long-distance relationship with her New York boyfriend (Josh Charles in a thankless role) crumbles, Baker gives in to the advances of a cocky Scottish photographer (Martin Freeman). She also has to diplomatically evade come-ons from a high-ranking Afghan official (Alfred Molina, hamming it up enjoyably as a stand-in for Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif). On the non-romantic front, she finds a reliable, caustic source in a Marine general played by a perfectly-cast Billy Bob Thornton.

The horrors of war eventually intrude on Baker's new life, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot underplays them. That may reflect the insular media "Ka-bubble" (as in Kabul bubble) Barker wrote about, but it also reflects Hollywood's insularity. At one point, a supporting Middle Eastern character chides the heroine's "white American lady" concerns, but knowing script-winks aside, that is the heart of the movie. When death comes, the emotional angst is saved for her fellow journalists. To some degree, the people of Afghanistan remain “other” throughout the film.

And with so much recent attention on the film industry's lack of diversity, it's hard not to raise an eyebrow at the casting of Abbott (an American) and Molina (a Brit of Spanish and Italian descent) as Middle Easterners. Both are very good in their roles (Abbott especially), but surely talented Middle Eastern actors could have been found.

While Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is guilty of being yet another movie that paints a narrow portrait of the world beyond the US, it certainly never seems jingoistic. Its main crime is shallowness. The war-torn setting, and even Barker's memoir, are just there to provide a new playground for Fey's likable, well-honed screen persona.

There's no reinvention here. Fey is still in the mode of the ambitious but self-doubting single woman she has played many times, from Mean Girls to TV's 30 Rock—driven to succeed, socially awkward and acutely aware of society's standards for female beauty and achievement. Here though, Fey adds a few new shadings to that persona that let her move between humorous and dramatic scenes with ease.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love) don't offer much in terms of directorial style, but they efficiently stage a tightly constructed, amusing script by Robert Carlock, who worked with Fey on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. He knows his lead actress well and the dialogue is clearly tailored for her.

It would have been nice to see Carlock, Fey and company aim for more gravity concerning the tragic and ongoing conflict of their story's setting, though. The recent A Perfect Day did a better job balancing sardonic humor and a more despairing view of a region in crisis. By comparison, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot stumbles as it treads into more serious terrain, but remains a highly enjoyable diversion.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Screenplay by Robert Carlock, based on the book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker. Starring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott and Billy Bob Thornton. 112 mins. Rated R.

Opens tonight (March 3) at theaters nationwide.