Fey brings depth, dry wit to war correspondent role
I walked into Book Passage in the Ferry Building the other day and noticed it had a display of books labeled as movie tie-ins; the title Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was among them. Having seen the trailer for the Tina Fey-helmed film (she both produces, along with her old Saturday Night Live boss Lorne Michaels, and stars in the picture), and knowing I’d be reviewing the movie, I was curious, and picked up a copy from the large stack. I was immediately confused, as the book in my hand was about a female photographer in Iraq, not a reporter in Afghanistan, which I knew the Fey film was supposed to be about. What was going on? Did the producers change the story that much?
The answer is no, but it’s easy to see why Book Passage (and no doubt others) would be confused. The film, which was unfortunately retitled to share the same name as that unrelated Iraq book, is actually based on journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir called The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You, Phillip Morris, Crazy Stupid Love) and Fey’s longtime collaborator, screenwriter Robert Carlock (Saturday Night Live, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock), have made some changes to Barker’s story, which may be why the picture was retitled. In fact, Fey’s character in the movie is now named Kim Baker, a subtle, yet noticeable change that indicates the liberties the filmmakers took with the story.
For starters, the film makes the fictional Kim Baker a TV producer of general news on an unnamed network (in actuality, the real Kim Barker was a print journalist for the Chicago Tribune), and drops the Pakistan section of Barker’s story entirely. Instead, here we get Fey’s Kim, suffering from an all-consuming malaise that one of her foreign reporter colleagues appropriately terms “American white lady problems.” Kim, who is bored at her behind-the-scenes desk job at the network’s New York bureau, and is feeling unsatisfied with her perfectly nice but somewhat milquetoast boyfriend Chris (Josh Charles, in a thankless role), longs for a way out of her rut. So when the opportunity arises to go to Afghanistan to report from the ground (the film spans a three year period beginning in 2003), Kim jumps at the opportunity to recharge her seemingly humdrum life.
That prologue actually happens in the span of about two minutes at the beginning of the film; somewhat jarringly, we are thrown into the Afghanistan story very quickly, with little to no backstory or lead up. But such a tone is appropriate, as it matches the confusion and chaos Kim immediately finds herself facing. And so, like Kim, we become entrenched, and the filmmakers do a terrific job showing us the complicated history of Afghanistan, the unstable situation of the early post 9/11-period, and the unpredictable and dangerous situations that were an everyday reality for Afghan citizens, U.S. troops, and foreign journalists.
At first apprehensive and naïve (she initially has to be told the difference between “Afghan” and “Afghani”), Kim adapts quickly, thanks to help from fellow reporter Tanya (Margot Robbie), Scottish freelance photographer Iain (Martin Freeman), and Fahim (Christopher Abbott, Girls), her assigned Afghan liaison. The day-to-day pandemonium (for anyone not understanding the title, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is military speak for the acronym “WTF,” which says something right there) is presented as both frightening (a scene in which Kim is accidentally dropped off at the wrong guest house in the middle of the night is particularly well done; the heightened sense of foreboding and imminent danger is palpable) and highly addictive. More than once, characters refer to the charge of being in a war zone as a rush equivalent to a drug high, and Ficarra and Requa, with their picture’s quick pacing and jaunty tone, have deftly allowed viewers to viscerally share that experience.
The movie is also an outstanding showcase for Fey, who is on screen almost the entire time, and commands our attention with a wry comic energy that belies Kim’s deeper insecurities and sensitivity. While never losing her comedic charm, Fey here proves she’s more than ready and capable of handling darker, more serious material; she delivers a thoughtful performance that easily rivals the work of any of today’s best dramatic actresses.
The supporting cast also appoints themselves well, with especially strong turns by Christopher Abbott as Fahim and Evan Jonigkeit as a wounded Marine. The two are lesser known actors who not only hold their own against heavyweights Margot Robbie, Alfred Molina (as an Afghan government official), and Billy Bob Thornton (as a tough but helpful Marine commander), but virtually steal the picture from their more famous co-stars.
One final note: anyone who has ever spent any time in New Mexico will instantly recognize the Sandia mountains and its vistas; the picture was primarily shot around Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and the Laguna Pueblo, which is somewhat distracting if you know those areas well. But with a little suspension of disbelief, you’ll be right there in the thick of the Kabul action with Kim, and you’ll be richer for gaining a little more insight into what’s been rightly called the Forgotten War.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot opens today at Bay Area theaters.