FILM REVIEW – WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT. With Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton. Written by Robert Carlock. Directed by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa. Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images. 112 minutes.
In WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, Tina Fey gets her best role since playing Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live.” Here she is Kim Baker, a fictionalized version of war correspondent Kim Barker who covered Afghanistan and Pakistan and wrote the memoir “The Taliban Shuffle.” It’s a darkly comic look at our never-ending war in the region.
Baker is a news writer for a cable network when she gets the opportunity to go in front of the camera. Most of the top correspondents are covering the war in Iraq and they need someone to report on what is, in effect, the forgotten war. She is befriended by another reporter, Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), and quickly learns the ropes.
What we learn about their work is that there’s a lot of sitting around and waiting, but there’s also an opportunity to make a difference. While “war correspondent” has traditionally been a male role, we see women not only doing it, but able to bring a different perspective. When a village’s well that has been repeatedly dug by the Marines is destroyed yet again, it is Baker’s being able to talk to the women in the village–all completely covered except their eyes–that uncovers what’s really going on.
She also has to put up with attention from various men although it’s made clear that the women can be just as focused on hooking up without apology. Baker eventually connects with a British reporter (Martin Freeman) which complicates things when a story breaks. She also finds that local justice minister Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina) wants to be more than just a source.
We’re not surprised to see Fey being funny and smart, but here she’s also serious, struggling to get her stories and then appalled when they don’t air because no one is interested in Afghanistan. She gets to play a well-rounded character for a change, as does Margot Robbie, all too often cast in the sex kitten role (as in her bubble bath cameo in “The Big Short”). The movie isn’t making a “statement” about strong, competent women. It’s just showing them matter-of-factly and that’s statement enough.
The larger issue in the background is how we have spent money and blood in a country that we don’t really understand and doesn’t seem likely to change. There are individuals who may feel differently but one is hard-pressed while watching the film– or, indeed, real-life news coverage–to be able to express a coherent statement of what our goals are in Afghanistan. The fact that Baker’s bosses have lost interest in the story speaks volumes.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” aspires to to be a film about war that makes us both laugh and think, in the tradition of “Dr. Strangelove” and “M*A*S*H.” Tina Fey’s performance makes this one not to miss.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.