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Movie Review: Tina Fey Is a Woman on a Mission in ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’

 

If you’ve seen the trailer for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, it may feel like familiar territory: an anti-war message wrapped in comedy with an end-of-days edge to it. It harkens back to Robert Altman’s classic M*A*S*H. Both the 1970 movie and the long-running television series followed the lives and work of Army doctors. Although set in the Korean War, it was very much a condemnation of America’s presence in Vietnam. And whether true to history or simply to television practices of its day, women were not exactly front and center. Nurses, by and large, served as assistants and sexual conquests of M*A*S*H’s main characters.  The one exception was the comic foil Major Margaret Houlihan, nicknamed “Hot Lips.” ‘Nuff said.

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In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a woman is very much the center of the story. The new movie (with a title that’s tailor-made for Twitter: #WTF) is based on the memoir of real-life correspondent Kim Barker. Her book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan chronicles five years of reporting. Filled with workaday frustrations, honesty and unlikely humor, the memoir has been described as “a personal, insightful look at covering an ambivalent war in a complicated region.”

Enter one of today’s smartest comediennes — and exceptionally well-cast here — Tina Fey. Fey plays Kim Baker (the author’s “r” has been removed), an underutilized and underwhelmed U.S. journalist. She leaves her lukewarm boyfriend and houseplants, buys an expensive, ill-advised neon orange duffel bag, and volunteers for a three-month assignment in Kabul. There, she meets her “Fixer,” her “Security,” and an animal house full of foreign press, partying as if its their last night on Earth. She stays for four years.

Fey is really quite wonderful in the film, which despite the trailer is more of a drama with some clever jokes than a comedy, per se. But, despite her best efforts, the movie starts to drift right at the beginning. We don’t see enough of Kim’s pre-Afghanistan life to understand her decision. Her initial discomfort with what must be a mind-blowing transition from yuppie journalist to war correspondent feels rushed and insignificant. Her biggest challenges seem to be finding a shower and a place to pee. She is preternaturally comfortable with everyone she encounters, swearing a blue streak along with the Marine Corps she’s covering.

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At one point, when she’s asked why she’s there, she tells a rather silly tale about realizing that she’s cycled so many miles (on a stationary bike) and only moved backwards. It’s a bit of a relief when a fellow journalist calls her on it. “That’s the most American white lady story I’ve ever heard.”

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