I shudder to think what Whiskey Tango Foxtrot would have been like without Tina Fey. This is a movie that uses the decades-long, ceaseless slow-motion nightmare of the war in Afghanistan not just as the backdrop to the story of a white woman dealing with problems with men and career and her self-esteem, but as the instigating event. To hear this movie tell it, the tens of thousands of families destroyed in Afghanistan over the last 100 years have served their purpose if they have allowed a white American to figure out what she wants out of her life and to help her get over a destructive relationship. The movie is so clueless and tone-deaf to the suffering of everyone involved in Afghanistan, on every side, that it contours its narrative to the emotional beats of this sheltered woman’s life. If she starts getting too cocky, a soldier gets blown up; if she begins to feel too distant, her boyfriend gets kidnapped by Taliban sympathizers. You know how teenagers walk around like the entire world is populated by extras who exist solely to be supporting characters in their life? That’s what this movie feels like. Except it’s about Afghanistan.
And damned if the thing doesn’t almost work anyway. The sole reason is Fey, whom you can actually see wrestling the movie back to someplace real and humble and powerful every time it tries to scurry up its own arse. Fey has never had this sort of role before, one that requires her to be on screen the entire film, to carry the entire thing, to navigate its often wildly careening tones, to be funny and sympathetic and human and scared and all of it. She aces every test, proving herself a real, relatable actress with legitimate range; there isn’t a moment when you don’t believe her, even when her character is acting in a totally ridiculous manner. She grounds the movie in something real, something urgent and human, and she pretty much single-handedly saves the movie from itself. The movie itself isn’t particularly serious, but she sure as hell is.
Fey plays Kim Barker, a woman who decided, while riding a stationary bike in Manhattan, that she wanted to go be a war correspondent in Afghanistan, saying, “I was tired of pedaling and going nowhere.” Groan. This would sound like the worst episode of Sex and the City ever if the movie didn’t take it at face value—as if witnessing other humans’ misery were simply another step on one’s road to self-discovery—and just start running with it. Barker learns that she loves being a war correspondent and ends up getting off on the adrenaline of it. She ends up coming across a gruff marine general (Billy Bob Thornton) who secretly respects her, a rival reporter (Margot Robbie) who shows her the ropes in Kabul, a Scud-stud-like Scottish correspondent (Martin Freeman) with whom she shares a nose for danger and a bed, an Afghan official (Alfred Molina) who might be the most ill-conceived character I have seen in a film in a long, long time, and, most memorably, an Afghan concierge (Christopher Abbott) who, in his understated and devout way, may care more about her than any of them. Including herself.
So we watch her wander into trouble over and over, without much rhythm or reason. I haven’t read the memoir this is based on, but the film has the erratic pace of a diary, told in chronological order but without much internal momentum. The Barker of the film doesn’t seem to care about anyone else, and certainly not Afghanistan, at least not in any other way than worrying where her next story is coming from. (The film’s internal logic at one point has us witness a drone strike and expects our only concern to be how it affects Barker’s relationship with her editor back in New York.) The movie keeps Barker and the country she’s in—and the sorrowful state of that country—entirely separate; we don’t even get a moment where she sees people suffering and feels bad. (At one point, the Scottish correspondent has to remind her that everyone around her is poor.) I hate to keep harping on this, but it’s a fundamental problem with the movie: Its lack of perspective on its main character and the country she finds herself in constantly pushes the audience away.
Yet you can see Fey, behind the mask of Barker, trying to yank it back to reality. There’s a sadness to her character, a searching dissatisfaction that’s not in the script, that keeps us watching and invested; it’s as if Barker knows she’s in a sandpit of human despair but doesn’t know how to express it. With a lesser actress, or just one with less self-awareness, this character could have been a fiasco. (I’m imagining some sort of Katherine Heigl disaster.) Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is almost worth recommending just to watch Fey try to work herself out of every trap the movie keeps putting her in. It’s a full-blooded, well-conceived, deeply felt performance. Tina Fey can do even more than you thought she could. And she can do so much better than this.
Looking for more movie recommendations? Check out the latest episode of the Grierson & Leitch podcast.