Brought to life by a talented ensemble and featuring a transcendent performance by Tina Fey in the lead, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is equal parts relatable personal drama and surreal wartime comedy. Its balanced tone and approach to presenting a realistic and poignant portrait of a journalist at a number of personal and professional crossroads, and finding the paths she chooses taking her literally into a war zone defined by unpredictability and carnage, is about as pitch perfect as imaginably possible. At the very least, it may just set a new audience expectation for Fey, one that hopes for more compelling and thoughtful performances like the one she delivers here.
Life in the Kabubble
Fey plays Kim Baker, who in 2003 decides to shake up her less-than-satisfying personal life and career as a cable news producer by taking an assignment as a war correspondent in Afghanistan. With absolutely zero experience with Middle Eastern language and culture or reporting from a live war zone, Kim finds her woefully unprepared for the paradoxical and sometimes outright absurd realities that characterize her new world, what those who’ve been in it for a while call “the Kabubble.”
At first, it’s the people around her who keep her from losing her mind and her life in the face of very real danger. There’s the quiet and steadfast Fahim (Christopher Abbott), a local “fixer” whose job it is to connect Kim with information opportunities and contacts in order to help her break stories. There’s also Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), a veteran on-air correspondent who eagerly welcomes Kim into the fold and shows her the ropes in return for simply another female presence in a place dominated by men in every measurable sense.
Her shooter, Tall Brian (Nicholas Braun), the head of her security team, Nic (Stephen Peacocke), and Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), a seasoned Scottish photojournalist who takes a shine to Kim even when she makes it abundantly clear she’s not interested, round out a support structure of sorts as Kim slowly figures out how to work and live in a place full of both rigid cultural boundaries and wild, almost hedonistic pursuits of life in the face of an uncertain future.
In terms of her career, Kim also meets in Kabul two men who will have a profound effect on where her reporting takes her. There’s Marine Colonel Walter Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), who at first rightly sees in Kim a greenhorn who could be a liability and a danger to his men in combat; and Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina), an ambitious local politician who initially dismisses Kim, as many men do in Afghanistan simply on the basis of her gender, but very quickly develops an interest in getting closer to Kim than possibly she might like.
Reporting on bullets flying and chaos raging by day, navigating a different kind of chaos characterized by drugs, parties, and short-lived amorous connections by night, it’s all Kim can do just to keep up, until one day she realizes, as many that work and play in the Kabubble for long enough do, that she can’t imagine living any other way.
The Taliban Shuffle
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on the real-life experiences of print-journalist-turned-war-correspondent Kim Barker, who shared stories of her years spent reporting in war zones in the Middle East in her 2012 book “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” While the film is essentially a collection of anecdotes whose progression does eventually point to some predictable dramatic beats, what holds it all together and keeps it both emotionally genuine and darkly comic is the narrative voice Tina Fey adopts in order to show and tell Kim’s story. The wry, self-deprecating wit that informs Kim’s every observation and insight into the crazy life she learns to live is an almost perfect fit for Fey; and yet there’s no escaping the sense throughout that her work here, the dramatic range required to make the character believable and relatable, transcends anything she’s done as a performer in any medium to date.
Is she funny? Yes, of course she is, because if Tina Fey can do one thing better than craft a line, it’s deliver one, and there are lots of good ones in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. But what’s so impressive here is that she’s so much more than funny in this role. She’s compelling, both as a viewpoint into a world and an experience few people will ever get to see from that perspective, and as a fully realized cinematic character whose voice never fails to come off as authentic.
Rivalry and Romance
Just as entertaining and compelling in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot are Fey’s talented castmates, who each get to shine in roles considerably different than what mainstream audiences might know them best for. Margot Robbie has not stopped stunning audiences with her looks and dramatic chops since she made such an unforgettable splash in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a run she continued with last year’s Focus (also directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa). Here, at last, she gets to enjoy considerable screen time while getting to speak in her native Australian accent, while also bringing to life a character in Tanya who is in many ways a foil to Fey’s Kim, a person so opposite of Kim that had they met anywhere else in the world they might not even get along, much less become fast friends.
But the friendship the characters forge does feel real and organic to the material because of where they are and what they’re up against, which makes where the two women’s stories ultimately lead them all the more dramatic. The same goes for Freeman and his depiction of the irascible Iain, whose occasionally profane, “rub you the wrong way until you like it” charms allow for the actor who is so often the straight man in his other roles to do some fun scene chewing of his own. Only in the Kabubble could Kim and Iain find themselves in one another’s orbit, and in some ways only because there’s a sense for all within that place and time that it can’t last forever. Given those constraints in addition to their characters’ equally glib personalities but profoundly different outlooks, it’s just plain fun to see Fey and Freeman run with the material and make it work.
While those relationships come to be symbolic of the tumult Kim finds in her personal life while in Afghanistan, it’s her interactions with Abbott and Molina’s characters, Fahim and Sadiq, respectively, that come to epitomize her complicated affection and consternation with the country itself. Thankfully, those roles are handled superbly, as well, and as such its Fey’s scenes with those two actors that are among the film’s most memorable, for both heartbreaking and humorous reasons.
Without a doubt. Ignore the film’s bait-and-switch marketing that would have you believe Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to be some sort of “30 Rock Goes To War” silliness, and go in ready for something truly memorable and exceptional. You may be surprised at just how much you enjoy the film, and you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Starring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, and Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
Running Time: 111 minutes
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images.