LOS ANGELES - When most people have a midlife crisis they do something to shake things up. A new purchase or a new significant other. Some may even change jobs. In WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, Tina Fey’s Kim Baker ditches her job as a writer-producer for a major network and decides to become a war correspondent in Afghanistan circa 2003.
She goes over with the chance to move in front of the camera and report on the war against terror. Baker is obviously a newbie, taking a bright orange duffle bag into combat among other sins. But, she learns on the job. Baker learns how to do her job and learns how everyone deals with the “Kabubble”— drinking. Lots of drinking.
Baker also learns about herself. She learns that she is an adrenaline junkie. She becomes addicted to the rush of reporting from dangerous areas.
In this weird environment she also tries to maintain a relationship with her boyfriend in New York (Josh Charles). That blows up during a Skype session where she notices another woman in his bed. That pushes her to a new relationship with a Scottish freelance cameraman played by Martin Freeman.
If all this sounds a little familiar, comedy and romance amidst the horrors of war, it did to me too. I thought it was the Afghanistan version of MASH, the classic Robert Altman movie about doctors in the Korean War.
The movie was produced by Fey and Lorne Michaels. The screenplay was written by Robert Carlock. These are the people behind 30 ROCK and THE UNBREAKABLE KIMMIE SCHMIDT. So the comedy bonafides are there. The well scripted and well executed drama was a bit of a surprise. But these are talented people, so I guess I should not have been shocked.
Fey is very good as Baker. She stretches a bit, but not as much as you might think. Here’s why. The movie is based on the real life story of Kim Barker. She was a print and online journalist who went to Afghanistan knowing not much and became a very good correspondent.
She told her story the book THE TALIBAN SHUFFLE. In her New York Times review of the book, Michiko Kakutani wrote:
“It’s not that Ms. Barker is adept at dramatizing her own adventures as a reporter - though she develops the chops of a veteran correspondent, she depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character…”
So for Fey, this apparently was not much of a stretch. Though she does pull it off well.
The rest of the cast is very good. Freeman is solid as usual. Margot Robbie’s star continues to rise. Christopher Abbot as Fey’s Afghan guide has a tremendous amount of heart. And the always amazing Alfred Molina may be underutilized as a government official who is smitten with Baker.
I drew the comparison to MASH earlier. WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT shoots for that target, but falls just a bit short. The writing is not as sharp and the direction is a little too loose as Altman’s classic. The film also rushes through events, a problem with any biopic.
But WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is funny and touching and worth a look.
Alan Yudman is a writer/producer for Fox 11 News. He also blogs movie reviews at Hollywood and Whine