By Kyle Smith
March 3, 2016
There aren’t enough movies in which Tina Fey fires an AK-47 while grinning maniacally. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” turns out to make excellent use of her established skills while revealing new ones: It’s “30 Rock Me to the Casbah.”
Episodic, loose and observational, “WTF” is more a magazine article than a movie — it’s based on a memoir by a war correspondent who spent several years in and around Kabul, Afghanistan — but it’s brilliantly told. It’s funny, odd and endearing, as drenched with detail as Afghanistan is with craziness (typified by the Islamist fanatics who are seen “executing” old TV sets by shooting them).
Fey plays Kim Baker, a bored TV producer (the real Kim was then a Chicago Tribune reporter) who volunteers to become an embed in Kabul. Immediately, she loses an envelope full of money at the airport and spends a TV interview being blinded by her own hair as it whips around her face in the wind. A friendly but hard-charging general (Billy Bob Thornton, wearing a mustache that makes him look more like a member of the Eagles than a Marine) introduces her to the 4-10-4 rule: Ladyfolk who might be rated a 4 back home seem like 10s to the men starved for female companionship, but then revert to being 4s upon returning home. Turning to a comely fellow war reporter (Margot Robbie), Kim says, “What are you, like, a 15?”
Without playing up Fey’s tendency to whine and call it feminism, the script, by Fey’s longtime collaborator Robert Carlock, makes it clear that war, particularly in a Muslim country, is a much more complicated experience for a woman. Peeing amid a crowd of men isn’t an option, but on the other hand, Kim is welcomed by some village women for a secret chat in which they inform her that they, not terrorists, have been the ones blowing up the village wells built by the Marines. The women would rather walk to the river for water because it’s their only opportunity to share gossip.
All of this is funny, fresh and convincingly reality-based, but it isn’t until the second half that the movie begins to form a plot. Kim takes friendly fire from New York (a producer tells her that Afghanistan reports are starting to suffer from “chronic same s - - t, different-day-itis”) at the same time that she is liaising with an acerbic but kind-hearted Scottish photographer (a priceless Martin Freeman) who winds up with a very different war experience than the one for which he signed up. Directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (recovering from last year’s so-so “Focus”) score the Scot’s big scene with Harry Nilsson’s light-rock classic “Without You,” and it’s weirdly great.
I don’t expect the “Deadpool” audience to get this, but: Movies used to be about something besides fantasy and other movies. It’s a vast, interesting world out there that few writers bother to go out and bring back. “Whiskey Tango” isn’t just a sharp and engaging film. It’s almost miraculous that it even exists.