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On The Air From Afghanistan: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot tells the based-on-fact exploits of a New York journalist who decides to accept an assignment in the Middle East in the Afghanistan war zone. Initially, reporter Kim Baker (Tina Fey), tired of covering the light pieces at home, planned to cover the war zone for just three months. Things change, though, once Kim gets in country. Even though she gets off to a tough start, Kim starts to win the admiration of General Hollaner (Billy Bob Thornton) when she takes risks to get her stories that favorably include his troops. In addition to the war stories, she also does some human interest pieces. Kim also has security and a native civilian liaison. When she thinks about heading home for a time, she learns her boyfriend Chris (Josh Charles) cheats on her. While Kim and others think that Scottish journalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) can be obnoxious, Kim starts to warm up to him.
She also makes friends with Australian journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), who's also trying to get the tough stories. Tanya, though, is just like Kim in the willingness to take risks to get her reports. When coverage of one story results in near disaster for Tanya, Kim finds her pieces get less coverage stateside. When Kim takes a similar danger covering a male-only event, her Afghan liaison, Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott), a former doctor and recent newlywed, compares her pursuit of a story to a drug addiction and quits. When Kim goes home to complain about diminished coverage, her boss, Geri Taub (Cherry Jones), tells her to report a story comparable to the one Tanya covered. Iain knows Kim's story, but his efforts get him kidnappped. She turns to a friendly Afghan government official, Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina), for help. Once she virtually blackmails Ali for help, she goes to see if Hollaner's troops with actionable information. As she grows closer to Iain, Kim wants to get a safer assignment, just as Tanya did.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on a book by Kim Barker, who covered Afghanistan as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. It's a good look at a woman who grows with her assignment, but the growth is not always in a good way. Kim gains confidence in her ability to get a good story, but she also starts to think herself as invincible, such as the scene where she hides a camera under a Muslim veil to capture a men-only demonstration. Kim also learns, with the help of Tanya and Iain, to enjoy her time there when opportunities avail themselves. The movie doesn't really cover any new ground with regards to being a war correspondent, but directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa balance the comic and serious elements well. The solid screenplay adaptation comes from Robert Carlock, whose association with Fey began when both worked on Saturday Night Live.
Fey does fine work in a role a little more dramatic than viewers are used to seeing her perform. Kim Baker, though, remains consistent with the comic and intelligent persona Fey has displayed on both SNL and 30 Rock. While Kim may be a stranger in a foreign land, she takes steps to acclimate herself in Afghanistan. For example, she brings a backpack on military reporting that might draw adverse attention because of its color. A soldier gives her duct tape to cover the color. When Kim and others hit the night life, they always have a security detail with them. With Iain, she may find a man who cares about commitment more than Chris. Robbie may be a friend as Tanya, but she's also a rival who, like Kim, wants to write a reporting ticket to anywhere else. Freeman may make women look the other way as Iain, but shows a man who cares to those who come to understand. With serious drinking and flirting also comes serious reporting. Molina has some of the movie's best comic moments as Ali, the Afghan official who charms Kim at every meeting, yet also tells her she'd make a handsome boy. Thornton and Abbott also have strong performances in support.
The title Whiskey Tango Foxtrot will put some in mind of a pejorative expression with the same initials. The movie has a couple of the latter moments in it, but it's otherwise a fairly tame dramedy. While Kim Baker accepts a reporting detail halfway across the world in a war zone, she comes to learn a different kind of war exists among some of her journalistic colleagues. They want the stories that get them coverage, and in time get them another assignment. Covering a conflict isn't easy, especially when reporters engage in a war for the most newsworthy story.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Whiskey Tango Foxtrot three stars. Reporting from the desert, with moderate doses of drinking and dancing.