In 2003, cable TV underling Kim Barker (Tina Fey) travels to Afghanistan to work as a frontline war reporter and is slowly entranced by the thrill of the battlefield.
Despite having a cupboardful of Emmys, Tina Fey arguably hasn’t quite found big-screen work to match her TV hits. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, written by her regular collaborator Robert Carlock, mostly succeeds in its aim to set this right. Based on blackly comic 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle, it tells the true story of Kim Barker (Fey) — a jobbing cable news reporter who, at the advent of the Iraq War in 2003, swaps her airless New York cubicle for a new life reporting from the frontline in Afghanistan.
The script is well stocked with fast, sharp one-liners, even if the tonal gearshifts occasionally induce whiplash.
So begins a kind of Zero Dark 30 Rock, as Barker — a catastrophically inexperienced klutz with a sniper-friendly bright-orange rucksack — feels her way into a world of hard-drinking adrenalin-junkie journalists, who have turned Kabul’s bullet-ridden buildings into their own personal frat houses. Here in ‘the Kabubble’, while trying not to breathe in air that we’re cheerfully told is “mostly faeces”, she encounters an alternative family, ranging from frenemy British reporter Tanya (Margot Robbie) to raffishly obnoxious Scottish photojournalist Iain (Martin Freeman).
The first hour — an effective juxtaposition of raucous partying and battlefield tension — is by far the strongest section of the film, playfully running with the fish-out-of-water conceit and packing in laughs alongside action that’s impressively composed by directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Carlock’s script is well stocked with fast, sharp one-liners and zippily conveys Barker’s three-year journey from frightened newbie to battle-hardened thrill-seeker.
However, the tonal gearshifts — from broad MASH* update to serious examination of war and addiction — occasionally induce whiplash. And later attempts to tally the emotional cost of Barker’s transformation don’t always feel earned. That said, the lasting impression is of a smart, commendably complex comedy that finally translates some of Fey’s snarky small-screen potency to the cinema.
Comedy for grown-ups that sometimes struggles with its ambitious brief, but always remembers that the best laughs contain the odd shard of shrapnel.