Whiskey Tango Foxtrot review: “sterling work from Tina Fey”

The 30 Rock star bumbles her way into a war zone in the true-life tale of a reporter fighting to be taken seriously in the Middle East

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★★★

With Liz Lemon, the hapless heroine of the award-showered US sitcom 30 Rock, the show’s creator and star Tina Fey crafted a character who may have been a spectacular klutz but who spoke astutely to the trials and tribulations of the modern, successful woman. It’s a role that has somewhat come to define and overshadow her as an actress. Until now. 

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on The Taliban Shuffle, the memoir of American war reporter Kim Barker. After Barker was described as “a sort of Tina Fey character” in The New York Times review of the book, Fey’s interest was piqued and she was instrumental in bringing the story to the screen, producing as well as stepping into the shoes of the initially unprepared, ultimately intrepid protagonist.

In acknowledgement of the biographical elements that have been trimmed and tweaked, Kim Barker near-indiscernibly becomes Kim Baker. Mining the comic potential of conflict significantly better than the recent, much maligned Rock the Kasbah, this dramedy from Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus; Crazy, Stupid, Love) sees professionally dissatisfied, 40-something cable news producer Kim shipped off to Afghanistan in 2003, after being identified as one of her team’s only ‘‘childless personnel’’. 

Arriving in Kabul for what she’s told will be a period of three months, she’s quickly inducted into the precarious, promiscuous, hard-partying ex-pat existence by fellow journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie). Kim overcomes her cluelessness to thrive but, as months become years, she starts to get reckless, deriving a kick from the danger and normalising the warped reality known as the “Kabubble”.

The film’s take on war as a dangerous addiction, and not just for those involved in combat, rings scarily true. And although it recalls Catch-22, MASH and Three Kings in its satirical slant, it’s rare to see a war story from the perspective of a western woman – as Kim battles both the machismo of the armed forces and the oppressive local attitude, her experience is characterised by objectification and belittlement, and she wins us over with her defiance. 

There are shades of Fey’s aforementioned sitcom alter ego, not least in her awkwardness, hostile relationship with the bull-headed General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) and jokes about how she’s the quintessential white lady. And yet it’s a mere starting point for the character and, after we’re eased into the situation through the adoption of this familiar persona, Fey begins to show us a more serious side.

Kim feels substantially drawn thanks to Fey’s sterling work, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is much less successful in the portrayal of its supporting players, many of whom are amalgamations of real people. It’s disconcerting that the two most prominent Afghan characters are played by western actors: Christopher Abbott (James White; TV’s Girls), who nevertheless brings some soulfulness to proceedings; and Alfred Molina, who’s sadly hamstrung by the clichéd characterisation. Martin Freeman makes a better fit for Kim’s Scottish antagonist/love interest, but both him and Margot Robbie’s rival feel ill-established, which undermines the emotional impact of their key scenes.

Screenwriter Robert Carlock takes aim at the cynicism of modern news output, as interest in the Afghanistan conflict wanes in favour of “Iraq 2” and the reporters on the ground resort to ever-more perilous lengths to justify their presence. But the satire never feels sufficiently scathing – unlike, say, the similarly themed, more aggressively critical Nightcrawler – and the trite conclusions don’t help. In this and its compromised casting, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot comes across as a touch cowardly for a film about taking the plunge.

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Whisky Tango Foxtrot is released in cinemas on Friday 6 May