The Quiet Subversion of Tina Fey’s ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’

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There’s something very telling about the way Paramount is promoting the Tina Fey war-reporter comedy/drama Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. It tells the true story of Kim Baker (Fey), a dissatisfied CNN copywriter who is offered an opportunity to cover the conflict in Afghanistan; taking stock of her life, of her milquetoast boyfriend and drab routine and “women over 40 one daily” vitamins, she decides, for once, to do something unpredictable. But you wouldn’t know that’s the story from the TV spots they’ve been airing this week:

They way it’s presented here, Baker flees to Afghanistan to mend a broken heart. In the longer, 30-second version (which I have been unable to locate online) the assignment is one of three options for reacting to her boyfriend’s infidelity: the other two are “drink a lot of wine” and “hook up with this guy.” But the problem is, in the film itself, her weaselly boyfriend cheats on her after she’s been out of the country for six months, blaming her inattentiveness. Paramount’s marketing team apparently decided personal dissatisfaction and general malaise weren’t enough of a peg to hang their movie on; their heroine had to be a woman scorned.

It’s a pretty gross way to sell what is, for the most part, a well-made, thoughtful picture – and a solid showcase for Fey, who comes out of this one looking, for the first time, like an honest-to-goodness movie star. She put herself in the right hands for it; the screenplay (adapted from Kim Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle) is by Robert Carlock, Fey’s longtime collaborator on SNL, 30 Rock, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And to both of their credit, it’s not just Liz Lemon Goes to Afghanistan; Baker is a complicated, difficult character, required to play not only the reactive comedy beats that Fey excels at, but heavy ones as well. She nails them all.

Directors Glenn Ficara and John Requa (Crazy Stupid Love, Focus) keep the energy high; it’s a witty film, filled with quotable lines (“They like to shoot off guns at weddings here. You get it, you’re from Florida”), well-executed set pieces (including a daring rescue mission set, incongruently enough, to Nilsson’s “Without You”), and genuine tension. They immerse the viewer snugly in this world, and effectively dramatize its appeal – the camaraderie between colleagues, the desperation of the drunken hookups, and draw of the danger.

They also surround Fey with a mostly terrific supporting cast, including Margot Robbie (basically playing Lara Logan), Billy Bob Thornton (basically playing Stanley McChrystal), and Cherry Jones. The word “mostly” is necessary, however, due to the puzzling decision to white-cast the important Middle Eastern characters. It’s one thing to hire chameleonic Alfred Molina, with a long history of playing characters of all races and cultures, as a slightly corrupt official; it’s another thing entirely to cast (and I swear to you, I’m not making this up) Christopher Abbott, aka Charlie from Girls, as an Afghan “fixer.”

But it’s ultimately Fey’s show, and she rises to the occasion — her arc has real juice. She’s initially afraid and hesitant, certain she’s in way over her head, and then discovers that not only does she get a charge from running around in this terrifying world; she gets one from exceeding expectations, her own and everyone else’s. She discovers something that she’s good at, and it’s hard to walk away from it, even when she’s chasing a thrill that’s placing herself and those around her in increasing danger. That’s why she can’t make herself go home to save her vanilla relationship, not the other way around.

Sure, it’s easy to dismiss Whiskey Tango Foxtrot as yet another white-lady-finds-herself tale (Vanity Fair’s Charles Bramesco dubbed it – wittily, I’ll admit – Shoot Pray Fuck). And it’s worth noting the film’s self-awareness on this point; when Baker tells a pair of colleagues what led her to the war zone, one of them (Sheila Vand) cracks, “That is officially the most American white lady story I’ve ever heard.” But if the story of a woman who looks at her life, is dissatisfied with it, and takes it upon herself to change it is so very trite and predictable, why does its studio think people will only accept a woman who changes her life because she’s wronged by a dude?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is out Friday.