In the New York Times’ 2011 review of “The Taliban Shuffle,” Kim Barker’s darkly funny memoir of her time covering war in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 2000s, Michiko Kakutani wrote:
“Ms. Barker … depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war …”
Cut to 2016, and “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” an adaptation of Barker’s book starring … Tina Fey.
The main character’s name has been changed from Kim Barker to Kim Baker. Other than that, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is a scene-by-scene, note-for-note, 100 percent faithful adaptation of the book.
KIDDING. As is the case with nearly every transition from non-fiction book to fictional movie, the changes are vast and varied, from turning Kim Baker into a TV reporter to eliminating the Pakistan element (and hence the “Taliban Shuffle,” a term used to describe reporters’ constant shuttling between the two war zones) to composite characters and wholly invented situations and drastically altered versions of scenes described in the book.
And yet somehow the essential truth and the overall tone of Barker’s terrific book shine through, thanks in large part to Tina Fey’s winning performance as the smart, well-intentioned and initially naïve Kim Baker, who plunges into her assignment with great gusto and a resolve to change the world, quickly learns she knows nothing, sees firsthand the horrors of war — and comes to think of Afghanistan as her home and her reality, while New York and civilian life becomes a distant, disconnected fantasy world.
Though rated R for a steady stream of violence, drug use, sexuality and language, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” follows a conventional and familiar path as a fish-out-of-water tale, with Fey’s Kim playing the enthusiastic, well-meaning white woman who arrives in Kabul with a brand-new orange backpack, only a passing knowledge of the local culture and the intricacies of the political machinations — and no idea of how to comport herself as an embedded reporter.
Kim encounters myriad archetypes in Kabul.
Billy Bob Thornton is perfectly cast as the non-nonsense Gen. Hollanek, who tells Kim he couldn’t care less about her getting the story; he just wants to make sure she doesn’t get any of his men killed.
Alfred Molina chews up the screen as a corrupt Afghanistan official who has a thing for Kim. (In one of the film’s best scenes, Kim fends off his advances with an angry but hilarious outburst. It’s a fine piece of acting from Fey, who knows as well as anyone how to deliver a zinger but also conveys a real sense of anger mixed in with a little bit of genuine fear during the confrontation.)
Martin Freeman is the rogue/good-guy Scottish photographer who falls for Kim. Margot Robbie is a sharp-tongued hoot as Tanya, a gorgeous and well-respected international correspondent who bluntly tells Kim she’s gone from like a five or a six (on a scale of 1-10) in New York to an eight in Kabul. Christopher Abbott is a standout as Kim’s handler and interpreter Fahim, who becomes like a brother to her and helps Kim see there’s so much more to Afghanistan and its people than the nearly ceaseless sights and sounds of guns firing, bombs going off, and loved ones mourning.
The script by Robert Carlock (a longtime collaborator of Fey’s) features some smart dialogue and a few legit moments of drama and peril, though a few really bright characters do some really dumb things in the interest of creating dramatic tension. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who previously teamed up for “I Love You Phillip Morris,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Focus”) do a credible job of turning New Mexico into Afghanistan.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is also to be commended for not turning every Middle Eastern character into a stereotype. The politician played by Molina and the handler/interpreter played by Abbott aren’t mere caricatures. (Billy Bob Thornton’s general, on the other hand, is ALL caricature, but Billy Bob knows who to make a role like that sing.)
Fey is such a likable and funny screen presence, but she’s no lightweight when it comes to playing subtle, honest drama, e.g., a scene where Kim is stateside and she visits a wounded soldier who might have been put in harm’s way because of her reporting.
If this role isn’t remembered as THE signature moment when we came to think of Tina Fey as an award-level dramatic actor as well as an iconic comic force, it’s a substantial step in that direction.
Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and written by Robert Carlock. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated R (for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images). Opens Friday at local theaters.