Intelligence is Tina Fey’s trademark. You could always see it right in the frames she wears for her eyeglasses.
It has always been a double-edged sword for her, though. It’s all too easy to suspect her of that greatest of American media sins – being too good for the room. In other words, too smart for the work she does.
That’s why her best-selling memoir was slyly called “Bossypants” – an ultra-smart variation on the word “smartypants,” which has probably been glued to her forehead since she was a toddler. (No doubt she also compounded her basic problem by growing up to be an adult put in charge of some things.)
Being too good for her own work was certainly true of her last film with Amy Poehler, “Sisters,” as much fun as it was for audiences and might even have been for its stars.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is probably the Fey movie where the differential between her talents and her ambitions is the most minimal thus far, rather than the usual maximal divide. (Her last semi-serious movie, “Admission,” was enough to make you wonder why on earth Princeton University allowed its name to be used in it.) “Whiskey” is directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, whose film “I Love You Philip Morris” did much the same service for Jim Carrey, ordinarily the megastar of such dimwit blockbusters as “Dumb and Dumber” and “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.”
The title is military lingo for WTF, a well-known Internet colloquial abbreviation denoting a common human reaction to confusion, disorder and surprise. “Whiskey” had, oddly, been used before in two books – one a photographic memoir of the war in Iraq and another a well-regarded 2015 novel.
Fey’s movie is loosely based on a book by reporter Kim Barker (see the interview in Saturday’s News) about being a Chicago Tribune reporter covering the American military in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This is a Hollywood movie, so things have been made a good deal splashier by screenwriter Robert Carlock (a “Saturday Night Live” veteran and, therefore, Fey cohort). Fey, instead of playing a newspaper correspondent, is playing Kim Baker (the first R in her last name having been surgically removed), a struggling cable TV reporter who had been covering nothing special until she’s assigned to Kabul.
As soon as she gets there, she almost immediately encounters another female cable TV reporter played by Margot Robbie, the Australian actress best known for Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” and, perhaps, the most sensationally beautiful blond movie beauty since Charlize Theron.
Stop and consider that: cable TV movie reporters in war zones played by Fey and Robbie. It’s not as if abundant female pulchritude is unknown in TV news, cable and otherwise. But having Fey and Robbie as two women covering war zones does seem to stack the Hollywood glamour cards, and more than a little, too.
But this is where things gets interesting. The career of beauteous, sometime-CBS News combat reporter Lara Logan has long been a subject of both gossip and news in the trenches of TV journalism, and no one’s going to convince me here that Logan isn’t some kind of reference point for the character Robbie plays.
She was, in any case, entirely made up for the film – a “frenemy” whom Baker hangs out with when she is not on the job.
As she first gets to Afghanistan, you may be forgiven thinking “Whiskey” cuts awfully close to “Private Benjamin” – especially when our embedded U.S. Marine combat journalist keeps herself hydrated with too much bottled water and has to stop a caravan of combat vehicles so she can answer’s nature’s extremely urgent call by the side of the road.
But things change abruptly the first time our correspondent is in the middle of combat. Her immediate reaction is to explode out of her relatively safe vehicle with a camcorder taking footage of the violent firefight going on. Her utter fearlessness under pressure earns her universal respect.
She’s a hard-bitten combat journalist for the rest of the movie – so much so that, a bit like Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” “Whiskey” has an entirely serious plot about just how addicted to danger our correspondent becomes.
Not that the correspondents’ life of hard-drinking, easy sex and smoking weed is slighted, mind you. That’s why this movie stars Fey and Robbie. That’s why the film can get away with Robbie’s dialogue about the scarcity of Western women, referring to Fey in America “as a 7” but “here you’re a 9.” To which Fey, quite sensibly, responds by asking Robbie “what are you? A 15?”
Billy Bob Thornton has a decent role as a forbidding Marine general, Alfred Molina has a much better one as an Afghan attorney general who would like nothing more than to engage in the most carnal possible international cooperation with the American journalist.
Martin Freeman plays the Scottish reporter Baker falls for when her longtime boyfriend back in America turns out to be something less than future-husband material.
There is abundant comedy here in the “war is absurd” mode that Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” codified and that “M.A.S.H.” made hugely popular. But Fey obviously wanted to make a semi-serious movie about women and journalism that left plenty of room for identifiable human emotions.
It is, indeed, a graduation of sorts for what we think of as a “Tina Fey” movie. Whether she receives a reasonably large audience as a graduation present will be very interesting to see. She more or less deserves one.
"Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"
3 stars (out of four)
Starring: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina
Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Running time: 111 minutes
Rating: R for pervasive rough language, some sex and drug use and wartime violence.
The Lowdown: Cable TV news reporter in Afghanistan adjusts to war, the Taliban and the chaotic life of embedded combat journalism.