It's appropriate the acronym for Tina Fey's warzone comedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is "WTF", because her character is living in a perpetual state of WTF in Kabul. Fish out of water comedies are either really good or really terrible, especially when dealing with the Middle East. Finding a way to be funny and culturally sensitive is what derailed Bill Murray in Rock the Kasbah just months ago, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot navigates those desert sands easily, giving Fey the best role of her career.
Kim Barker's memoir "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan", serves as the basis for a sharp comedy that explores sexism and journalism in the heart of war-torn Afghanistan. Fey, bringing a little bit of a hapless Liz Lemon vibe, plays Kim Baker (Why change the name at all? Seriously?), a lowly writer at an unnamed news station, bored with her job and just as bored with her boyfriend (Josh Charles), who she can never find time for anyway. Needing a change, Kim jumps at the chance to report on the War on Terror, hitting the frontlines in Kabul, or as the regular journalists there call it, "the Kabubble".
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus) with a screenplay by Fey's 30 Rock writer, Robert Carlock, the film strikes a gentle tone of fish-out-of-water ridiculousness; think Jarhead meets Lost in Translation. Kim is quickly swept up in the community of journalists and ex-pats calling the battlefield home. She arrives in 2002 when the war was all about changing hearts and minds, or as one soldier puts it, "Hearts and minds, the two best places to shoot people. In a strange land and with barely any experience under her belt, Kim is given a baptism by fire, embedded with an edgy general (Billy Bob Thornton) dealing with firefights and mundane issues like broken wells. But there's plenty of time for R 'n R, in which copious amounts of booze (there's more whiskey than tangos or foxtrots) flow at the seemingly-nightly dance parties playing old school hip-hop.
Finding laughs in the middle of a warzone is tough, and not everything can be M.A.S.H., but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot strikes just the right balance, capturing the thrill and the banality of being a war reporter. After experiencing her first combat situation, Kim increasingly needs to be in the middle of the action, and her evolution into an adrenaline junkie draws concern from her loyal Afghan translator, Fahim, (Christopher Abbott), who has seen it all before. But it doesn't just apply to her need go deeper onto the battlefield, as Kim takes greater risks personally, too. She becomes friends with sexy Aussie journalist, Tanya, who isn't afraid to take advantage of being one of the very few hot women in town, encouraging Kim to do the same. She also hooks up with the slick-tongued Iain (Martin Freeman), a journalist whose arrogant demeanor hides a heart of gold. Most dangerous of all is Kim's flirty association with a local government official (Alfred Molina), who she taps as a source even though he clearly wants more than a business relationship.
Normally we see this adrenaline junkie behavior reflected in male characters, but there have been more films of late (A Thousand Times Good Night with Juliette Binoche tells a similar story) attributing it to women as a means of exploring their femininity or maternal instinct. That refreshingly isn't the case here with Kim, but she nonetheless faces constant threats being a female reporter in a place like the Middle East. Being caught outside without a head cover could mean a brutal beating; and in one scene she's accosted at an all-male rally even though she's wearing a burqa.
Building tension and finding clever humor in the lethal locale is what Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does best. It gets plenty of help from a game cast, led by Fey, of course, in a performance that sees her adding deeper layers to a character that seems very familiar at first. Kim may start off a little clueless but her experiences shape her into someone much bolder, and Fey captures that evolution beautifully. While Christopher Abbott and Alfred Molina are both terrific, particularly the former, casting them as Afghans feels a bit off, especially with Hollywood white-washing such a major thing right now. And Robbie can add yet another strong supporting turn under her belt. She's finding new ways to prove how much more than just a pretty face she really is, adding depth to a character that could have been singularly vain. But this is Fey's show, and if Whiskey Tango Foxtrot leads to her getting more of a chance to fly solo in weightier material, then we'll all be better off.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5