A bored news writer finds fulfillment as a war reporter in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” an adventure loosely based on journalist Kim Barker’s memoir.
Tina Fey keeps the antics enjoyable and the more serious material from dissolving into the desert wind. But comedy doesn’t quite mix with strife in Afghanistan.
Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Crazy Stupid Love”) blend fact with fiction and combine genres in this fish-out-of-water tale, female-discovery journey, romantic comedy and war-zone romp adapted by Fey “30 Rock” colleague Robert Carlock from Barker’s “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Influences appear to include “Eat Pray Love” and “MASH.”
Fey plays Barker, a 40ish New Yorker who, when introduced in 2002, has an uninspiring behind-the-scenes cable-station job and a downbeat boyfriend (Josh Charles). Along with other childless, unmarried employees, she gets the chance to spend three exciting months as a war reporter in Afghanistan.
At first, Kim is an inexperience disaster. Embedded with a unit headed by a no-nonsense general (Billy Bob Thornton), she shows up with a camouflage-defying orange backpack. She insists the military caravan stop so she can pee.
At the media compound, where journalists party hard and have lots of sex, she is a straitlaced outsider.
Naturally, that changes. Kim semi-bonds with Tanya (Margot Robbie), a more seasoned, more competitive reporter who encourages her to have a fling in this country where a woman “who is a four back home might be considered a 10.” (That makes Tanya a 15, the women note.)
Kim finds romance with Iain (Martin Freeman), a roguish Scottish photojournalist who, in rom-com fashion, initially repels her.
She also becomes a savvy war reporter who braves hostile terrain and navigates political morasses to get the scoop.
Ficarra and Requa keep things zippy, and the likable Fey clicks with costars. Scenes with Thornton’s military commander, who comes to admire Kim, and with Freeman, whose caddish Iain shares an unlikely but credible chemistry with Kim in the warped atmosphere of war-plagued Afghanistan, are particularly strong.
But these dynamics are too infrequent and insubstantial.
The mixing of genres results in tones that don’t jell, and the story is often contrived and predictable. A climactic rescue mission occurs to serve the romantic element.
The only significant Afghan characters are a smarmy government minister (Alfred Molina) and Kim’s voice-of-truth translator (Christopher Abbott), whose character seems devised to offset the problematic nature of Molina’s.
Overall, the movie skims the surface of a potentially sharp satire or a compelling self-discovery journey with an underserved Tina Fey. It’s not enough.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Two and a half stars
Starring: Tina Fey, Martin Freeman, Margot Robbie, Christopher Abbott
Written by: Robert Carlock
Directed by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes