Embeds in Bed: Fey shows growth but “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” at war with itself

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)
111 min., rated R.

Cleverly named after military slang for “WTF,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” frustratingly doesn’t always seem to know where it wants to go or what it wants to be. Despite the casting of a smart, funny lady such as Tina Fey, it’s not exactly a satire and it’s never an out-and-out laffer but more of a fish-out-of-water war dramedy set in Afghanistan. Loosely based on Chicago Tribune journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the film cares enough about its female protagonist, following her through the wild-and-crazy and war-torn on her life and career-changing journey, but only pokes the surface of its political and thematic aims in a scattershot narrative.

Tina Fey stars as Kim (drop the “r”) Baker, a Manhattan news network copywriter who takes an assignment as a correspondent in the war zone of Kabul because she’s one in a group of single, childless reporters. Leaving her city and boyfriend Chris (Josh Charles) for three months, she’s overwhelmed at first being in Kabul—or “Ka-bubble,” as her colleagues call it—but is willing to get the story. Kim is equipped with a local handler in Fahim (Christopher Abbott), a hunky Australian security guard (Stephen Peacocke), and a camerman (Nicholas Braun). The only other woman in her safe house is Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), a gorgeous British TV journalist who helps navigate Kim through Kabul’s night-life festivities and tries steering Kim away from charming Scottish freelance photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), with whom Kim inevitably hops into bed anyway. When her time is up, Kim actually stays on for three years until 2006 with the opportunity to interview a Taliban crime lord and get other dangerous coverage. 

If directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (2015’s “Focus”) and screenwriter Robert Carlock (a writer and show-runner for TV’s “30 Rock” and Tina Fey’s co-creator on Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) say anything, they do touch on the rampant sexism and the “forgotten war” in Afghanistan not being given enough airtime, while tracking Kim Baker's growth from copywriter to war correspondent. As to be expected at the start of the film, Kim is out of her depth. She naively carries around an orange backpack. When interviewing the troops, she’s ill-prepared, the wind whipping her hair out of place and fluttering her notepad pages. On a ride-along, she witnesses an explosive enemy attack and, instead of staying inside the Humvee, runs out to shoot the action with her video camera. For a little bit, the film gets that palpable culture shock and sense of being away from home in a foreign land. It also goes for easy laughs, like when Kim first steps on South Asian soil and gets called out by a local woman (“Cover yourself, you shameless whore!”) for not wearing a head scarf. Unfortunately, for a film based on one woman’s open-ended stint in dangerous territory, it remains superficial and never gains much focus, rushing through Kim’s interviews but not her repetitive life of drinking, hooking up, waking up with regrets, rinse and repeat. 

Widening her range with material in a more serious setting, Tina Fey is her witty self and conveys a journalistic tenacity, as well as a more cultural awareness, in her arc as Kim Baker. The supporting performances are nothing to scoff at, either: Margot Robbie is comedically sharp as ambitious reporter Tanya, who’s like a 15 on a 10 scale; Billy Bob Thornton is always ready to be prickly as no-nonsense Col. Walter Hollanek; Christopher Abbott (2015's "James White"), despite the brouhaha of whitewashed casting, lends warmth and compassion as Kim's interpreter Fahim; and Martin Freeman juggles sincerity and womanizing rather well as Kim's possible love interest Iain. Only does Alfred Molina venture into zany caricature as lecherous Afghan attorney general Ali Massoud Sadiq, who wants to be Kim’s “very special friend."

There are some very funny lines here and there—when Kim looks in the mirror at herself with a burqa on, she quips, “It’s so pretty, I don’t even want to vote!”—and individual moments do work. The film also imbues the story with unexpected musical choices, scoring Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” to a tense nighttime kidnapping rescue. Even then, the film feels tonally off most of the time, bouncing between the wackiness of “Jump Around”-blasting partying and romantic bed-hopping to the war-ravaged horrors of people getting blown up. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” makes some smart observations, but it’s never as sharply observed, poignantly handled, or absurdly funny enough to leave a bigger impression. As for Tina Fey, may her next headlining project give her even more emotional heft with her quick-witted barbs.

Grade: C +