I had a strange realization tonight when I tried to think of any single person I’d ever met— in life or on the internet— who proclaimed themselves to not be a fan of Tina Fey, and I came up empty. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say they don’t like Fey. Which is crazy, because there’s always someone who has a different taste, or just needs to detract from our communal admiration. No matter how much we all loved the new Ghostbusters trailer, in my own personal social media feeds, and I assume most of yours, I’ve seen every one of those women get multiple, various forms of the “I don’t know, she just bugs me” criticisms. But Tina Fey? Everyone loves Tina Fey.
And yet there is a huge swath of Fey’s work that is generally disliked. Because the Tina Fey we know from television— from Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, from every word she’s ever bantered with Amy Poehler— is not the same Fey we see in her films. A movie starring Tina Fey (starring, not featuring or written by, because Mean Girls is perfection and we’re not talking about that) is, generally speaking, a disappointing undertaking in broad (DOUBLE MEANING) comedy. Until now. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not the best movie of the year, or of its genre, or of anything, really. But it is the closest we’ve gotten yet to having Weekend Update Tina leading a movie.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on journalist Kim Barker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Leaving out an ‘r’ and a Pakistan, Tina Fey is Kim Baker, a news copy writer who picks up and moves to Afghanistan to be a war correspondent when a midlife
crisis epiphany coincides with all of her network’s big talent leaving that country to chase the story in Iraq.
This movie is destined for endless Eat, Pray, Love comparables, which may feel unfair. But really, the comparison is less far-off than we’d like. Kim is definitely in Kabul to find herself, and just because her own personal verb-based title may be something closer to Drink, Shoot, Repeatedly Risk Lives of Self and Others, the same structure remains, complete with a disappointing disregard for the cultural context. WTF (OH I GET IT!) isn’t the typical white soul-searching mission against a beautiful foreign landscape. Baker really is invested in the war, the soldiers, and the women of Afghanistan. And there is a deep self-awareness here that we don’t normally see in this type of film, so when Kim is telling a karaoke bar prostitute about her “unhappiness,” it’s at least halfway to a laugh line. And her life really is dangerous. But she does have the ability to pick up and leave whenever she wants, and that fact is never actually acknowledged by anyone.
And then we add to that the giant misstep of refusing to cast Afghan actors in major roles, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot gets a whole lot WTFier. As much as I adore Alfred Molina, is he really a big enough name that anyone felt it was absolutely necessary to cast him as a high-up Afghan government official? Baker’s translator Fahim is played by Christopher Abbott, who you may know as Marnie’s distinctively un-Afghan first season boyfriend Charlie on Girls.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot comes so close to being something great. The script, from Fey’s longtime collaborator Robert Carlock (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock, SNL) doesn’t sacrifice either side of this movie: the comedy is perfectly suited to Fey’s mastery of the offhand deep cut, but the action of a war journalism movie is consistently captivating. The romance between Baker and a sleazebag-turned-soulmate Scottish photographer (Martin Freeman) is unnecessary but charming. Same goes for the frenemy rivalry with Margot Robbie. This is one of those movies that is going to be hard to gauge others’ reactions to, because so much of it is just plain good. But so much of the rest is simply forgivable. (And some really does come up short.) Because despite all of those criticisms I just laid out, I adored this movie. Maybe I was in the right mood to handle some saccharine formulaic plot points, or maybe it’s that when Tina Fey goes through those saccharine formulaic plot points, most of us just aren’t going to mind all that much.