WTF is comedy diva Tina Fey doing in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a film based on Kim Barker’s memoir about covering the war beat as The Chicago Tribune‘s South Asia bureau chief from 2004 to 2009? Barker called her book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s an eye opener about a newbie correspondent learning on the ground about a different culture. The book is brutally honest and bitingly hilarious.
This is where Fey comes in. That she’s funny is a given. That she gets inside the tangled mind of a complex woman on a perpetual hot seat is something new but not that surprising. From her improvisational days at Second City through her time on SNL, which she triumphantly translated into the multi-Emmy winning NBC sitcom 30 Rock, to movies such as Mean Girls, Baby Mama and Sisters and her bestselling autobiography Bossypants, Fey has always shown a gift for lacing laughs with satirical sting.
Sure, we hadn’t seen Fey ride in choppers, fire weapons, duck explosions and lock horns with the Taliban, but who else could better mine the gallows humor of suicide bombers and IEDs? In 2011, when Michiko Kakutani reviewed Barker’s book for The New York Times, she wrote that the author “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war.” How prophetic. The movie itself, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love), from a script by 30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock, isn’t always adept at meshing tones that rocket from comic to serious to absurd to deadly to comic again. To boost the box office with telegenic topicality, the film changes Barker’s job from print journalist to cable news reporter. OK, that hurts.
Still, the script follows the book in outline with Barker as a fish out of water. She is taken under the wing of British TV journo babe Tanya Vanderpoel (a sly, stunning Margot Robbie), who invites her to bunk at the Fun House, where other war reporters work hard and party harder. Barker gets royally reamed out by a hard-ass general (Billy Bob Thornton, chewing every insult like a fine cigar). Naive Barker carries around a bright orange backpack: “Where are you going to hide it, inside a fucking sunset?”
Barker ups her learning curve with help from an Afghan driver (a soulful Christopher Abbott), and with a Scottish photographer (Martin Freeman in full-on charm mode) she takes to bed. To save him, she even puts out for the future Pakistan prime minister (Alfred Molina).
There’s a lot going on here. Maybe too much. The filmmakers can’t draw coherence out of chaos. But Fey does. Her potent performance grows as Barker grows a conscience about the fragile, ravaged region she’s covering. Chasing things that go boom gets her face time on the news. But what else? Fey lets that question hang in the air. She knows the power of making you laugh till it hurts.