WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is being sold as a comedy and that shortchanges everyone. Based on the memoir by Kim Barker, “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” about her time in the early 2000s as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, it is a trenchant look at media, politics, and the separate reality that is a war zone. It’s also the personal journey of Baker, who, with one plane ride, went from behind-the-scenes news writer to on-air correspondent where bullets flew.
Not that the situation that isn’t rife with comedic possibilities, from Baker making the mistake of bringing a bright orange backpack to an embed mission in the field with the Marines, to her looking askance at the innovative way the locals light their cigarettes. She also brings the necessary quality to make this film work: a blazing and unapologetic intelligence coupled with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a pitch-perfect sense of the essential humanity of the story. Fey is one of the best comedic minds and actors working today, but as is so often true of those who can make us laugh, they can also connect on other emotional levels, and far more deeply because of that ability. In a film that requires the hairpin turns from absurdity to tragedy, Fey never misses a beat, never shows a false moment, and never delivers anything but a superb performance that rings true no matter what the tone. When she takes charge, there is an undisputable authority that doesn’t require posturing. And when she comes up with an ad-hoc plan that impresses the laconically acerbic Marine general (Billy Bob Thornton) who has grudgingly come to respect her abilities in the field, there is nothing of the deus ex machina about it. She is credibly that smart and that quick.
The film is told from Baker’s point of view, starting with the crushing quiet of her orderly life in New York, to the final epiphany about where her journey has taken her, and where she should go from there. It rises above its requisite tropes that find Baker stumbling around looking for a shower after her trip from New York, confusing Afghan with afghani, or partying hard with the foreign press corps that lives together in a hotel in Kabul turned ersatz frat house. Instead it is an absorbing film about a smart woman finding her bearings and becoming an invaluable resource, including going where no man could have gone, for a television network that is not sure Afghanistan is good for their ratings. It also considers the addictive adrenalin rush that comes of covering a hot war, the rush that makes a sane woman leap from a Humvee, camera in hand, to film an ambush.
The supporting cast includes the usual suspects, but neatly written and thoughtfully acted. Nic (Stephen Peacocke), the hunky security guard assigned to keep Baker in one piece, the local fixer Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) tasked with translating for Baker and keeping her safe from violating local customs, and the fellow journalists, Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), the blonde bombshell who takes Baker under her wing, and Ian MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), the freelance Scottish photographer who takes an unrequited fancy to Baker despite her boyfriend back home. They are given unexpected depths, particularly Fahim, a former doctor with wistful eyes that occasionally twinkle as he imparts his wisdom with a subtly puckish air. Theirs is the most compelling and complex relationship in the film.
WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT makes its many points without resorting to being strident. Baker strolling around in her burka for the first time, making heads turn in slo-mo as a bouncy French pop song bounces, or the deadpan way that she doesn’t challenge male expectations, she just ignores them and goes about her job, is a sly approach that is also refreshing for the way it refuses to give credence to those expectations. This is a subversively provocative story, done with an arch sensibility and a whole lot of savvy.