Maybe Tina Fey’s war-zone dramedy “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” bombed at the box office because it was too difficult to explain or describe in a one-minute preview. But what’s bad for box office can be good for the actual film experience. I happen to think a complex film that defies easy compartmentalization is a good thing, and that’s what Fey’s foray into drama is — a bitterly funny but ultimately serious story about a female reporter coming into her own in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In a few gray opening moments, we see Fey’s character, Kim Barker, in 2002 at her cubicle in New York City. She is writing uninspired news copy about nutrition fads, popping a “women over 40” vitamin and dutifully hopping on an exercise bike every night. When her employers gather everyone who is “single and childless” and try to enlist volunteers to go to Afghanistan, she sees a way to change her life. Leaving behind a committed but tepid relationship, she finds herself in the “Ka-bubble,” a term used to describe the surreal world of war journalists in Kabul.
The heady mix of the constant threat of violence and the close quarters among the journalists create an “anything goes” atmosphere, and Barker is soon carousing with her colleagues, becoming close friends with Margot Robbie, a more seasoned, daring and attractive reporter. What follows is a series of Barker’s attempts to file a good story, some more successful than others, and learning the ropes. The film doesn’t delve particularly into actual political quandaries; it is more about the job of being a reporter, and especially what the job gives to and takes away from reporters personally.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” shows Barker growing in competence and daring, first going where she’s told, and ultimately seeking out stories in order to keep the job that was only supposed to last three months. Billy Bob Thornton, a Marine general, becomes an ally in her most personal and important story, while she leverages the unwanted advances of a state official for her own needs.
Fey stretches herself in this film. She is usually her same, beloved self in every film, but while this performance isn’t entirely transformative, it is perhaps her first character that is actually a fresh character and not “Tina Fey/Liz Lemon.”
Sometimes the dramatic elements are more successful than the humorous ones. Alfred Molina’s colorful, lavishly bearded state official is over the top, and the film works best not because of slapstick situations but because of the funny lines delivered by the characters. Intelligent, sarcastic adults make funny comments in the midst of frightening situations. The previews show the first woman driving in Kabul accidentally backing up on camera, but that is probably the only incident in the film that gets laughs that way. It is far more serious than funny, overall.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is a nice change of pace; it fits a viewing niche you didn’t know you needed. It’s not a superhero movie or a romance or a cartoon — it’s a good, interesting story about a smart, funny woman doing a fascinating job. She meets all kinds of smart, funny people and they drink and sleep around and get shot at, and while it may be hard to define, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is easy and fun to watch.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is currently available to rent.