For seemingly no reason, Tina Fey plays war correspondent Kim Baker in her new film, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” based on Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir “The Taliban Shuffle:Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Why does Barker lose an “R” from her name? I don’t know. And I’m not surprised the film doesn’t either.
Set over the course of a few years in the mid-oughts, Fey’s Baker starts the film as a copywriter at a New York-based cable news network. She eats what looks like tuna salad for lunch and rides a stationary bike after work. One day, the network pulls together all its unmarried journalists without kids to gauge interest in an assignment in Afghanistan. The next scene while riding her stationary bike, Baker watches Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) report from Afghanistan. That seals it, I guess. Baker takes the 3-month assignment to cover a war losing air-time to one taking place simultaneously, in Iraq.
Baker arrives in Kabul green. She doesn’t know much about the country or the mechanics of the war machine that exists in the area. In fact, she tries to remain some semblance of her former life (and do the long-distance thing with her boyfriend, Josh Charles) in a place where that life can’t exist. Not only because she is so far from home, but also because the internet connection sucks and the power grid ain’t exactly reliable.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” becomes, really, two different films that hardly coalesce over its 110 minute run time. The first, is a sort of “Eat, Pray, Love” solo-adventure story framed out of a sense of white privilege and an underdeveloped and unneeded love triangle. The second, is a wartime satire or condemnation of the Afghan government, American military, and 24-hour cable news. These two different films are connected by Iain MacKelpie, a freelance photojournalist (played by a scotch-soaked Martin Freeman) who develops into Baker’s love interest.
When we first meet MacKelpie he’s described as an “asshole” and someone Baker shouldn’t sleep with. But as she becomes more familiar with Afghanistan and her life there, she does. And they have some kind of romance. (Romance, as defined here, is Baker waking up after a blackout hookup with MacKelpie and offering to buy breakfast.) He helps her see the world differently: specifically, how aggressive and competitive foreign correspondents must be to get their stuff on the air.
There’s a running commentary on the role of women in Afghanistan – how little rights they have as opposed to the freedom enjoyed by someone like Baker in New York City – and it’s something the film uses to frame its narrative. When (spoiler alert) MacKelpie is kidnapped late in the film, Baker blackmails the Afghan Attorney General (Alfred Molina) into helping her with a video she’s obtained of him making a fool of himself vying for her affection.
Fey is right for this role, as she radiates both brunt intelligence and adolescent romantic that this film requires. But her character and the story is a little underwhelming. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” isn’t quite biting enough to be a satisfying satire, nor are the relationships developed enough to call it a romance. It’s fun at times and clever at others, but mostly it’s not sure what it wants to be.