“I don’t think I can do this,” Kim Barker (Tina Fey) tells her boyfriend early on in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Kim has good reason to be skeptical about her abilities. A writer, she has spent her career working behind the scenes at a TV station, and she has just left home to cover the war in Afghanistan. She has no on-air experience, no particular understanding of the country’s politics and no clear idea of why she has volunteered for this mission except for a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Also, there’s fecal matter in the air. Who wouldn’t want to go home?
Based on the real-life Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot follows her adventures in Afghanistan, her growth as a journalist and her relationships with colleagues, soldiers, politicians and the fixer who helps her do her job. The film reimagines Barker, a print journalist for the Chicago Tribune, as a broadcast journalist for the obvious reason that video is sexier than type, cinematically speaking. A print reporter doesn’t leap out of a vehicle in the middle of a firefight between insurgents and Marines to shoot video. The film also cuts her stint in Pakistan, presumably to improve its focus.
The book plays a lot of Barker’s adventures for laughs, and in keeping with that spirit, the film can be amusing. Many of its offbeat touches ring true — because they are. Consider Egg Boy, the kid who runs a scam on foreigners by crying on the street and pretending the eggs he’s been carrying have been carelessly broken. Kim gives him money, then is mad when she realizes she’s been tricked. But her colleague gives the boy money anyway, pointing out that whatever the truth is, he’s still begging in the street.
Fey is a good fit with the material, and her co-stars are all solid, including Billy Bob Thornton as a laconic general; Martin Freeman as a boozy, charming Scottish journalist; Alfred Molina as a local politician with a crush on Kim; and Christopher Abbott (Girls) as Kim’s fixer and translator (he tries to keep her out of trouble). Those last two characters are based on real people. The first two are not, which may explain why both figure in the film’s most preposterous development, an unthinkably silly rescue mission accomplished with minimal effort. If taking on the Taliban were this easy, they’d be speaking Russian from Kabul to Kandahar.
Directed by Glenn Ficara and John Requa (Focus, Crazy, Stupid Love, I Love You Philip Morris), Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does present some of the chaos of the war, but its simplistic explanations of complex relationships ultimately feel unsatisfying (like its view of foreign correspondents as mere adrenaline junkies, when the truth may be a bit more complicated). This is a movie not about Afghanistan but about one American’s experiences there; Barker’s book delves far deeper into the politics of the region. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is entertaining sometimes, but if you’re looking for any real insight, you’re looking in the wrong place.
Cast: Tina Fey, Billy Bob Thornton, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Josh Charles.
Directors: Glenn Ficara, John Requa.
Screenwriter: Robert Carlock. Based on the book by Kim Barker.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 112 minutes. Pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images. P