Whiskey Tango Foxtrot — yes, you're supposed to chop that into initials — is a girl-power comedy with a bold twist: The timid heroine blossoms in Afghanistan, one of the most female-unfriendly countries on earth. By day, Kim Baker (Tina Fey), a TV reporter, and her male team visit all-girls schools that have been torched by the Taliban, who burned desks and books and scrawled “No education for women” on the wall. Outdoors, men and women can't even touch. But at night inside their Kabul dorm, a.k.a. the Kabubble, the journalists get wasted and screw, acting out like college freshmen celebrating their freedom.
It's oppression versus decadence. Both groups are extremists — the foreigners are just having a lot more fun.
Back in America, Kim was a wallflower hunched over her desk picking at a Tupperware of chicken salad. In Afghanistan, she glows. Here, where male expats outnumber women 30 to 1, she's a "serious piece of ass." When she struts into a party with fellow reporter Tanya (Margot Robbie), a macho blonde who chews toothpicks, every man drools. [Note: Paramount, which produced Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and MTV News are both owned by Viacom.]
What's smart about Robert Carlock's script, based on the memoir The Taliban Shuffle by former Chicago Tribune reporter Kim Barker (Fey's character just drops the first "r" in her last name), is that Kim notices she's a babe — and doesn't care. Her suitors are lame: the New Zealander bodyguard (Stephen Peacocke) with the cheesy shark tattoos, the horndog Scottish freelance photographer (Martin Freeman), and even Afghanistan's bear-chested minister of vice and virtue (Alfred Molina). ("That sounds like the Taliban," presses Kim about Molina's position, and he's so stunned by her guts that he falls in lust.)
The guys assume Kim loves Kabul for the male attention. Sniffs one: In Afghanistan, she's a 10; at home, she's a 4. But Kim is crushing on herself. She loves the woman she's become: a brave, hard-drinking badass who runs into gunfire clutching a camera. If she goes home, that girl might vanish. Only her translator Fahim (Christopher Abbott, quietly grounding the movie) recognizes the deeper truth: Kim loves Kabul because she's addicted to danger, a literal adrenaline junkie.
Gotta admit, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy Stupid Love, Bad Santa) make Kabul look like a blast — in every sense of the word. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot opens on a raging kegger cut short by a bomb. The reporters drop their drinks and grab their mics. Suck on that beer bong, Walter Cronkite.
This rowdy energy might seem flip. After all, close to 100,000 people have died in war in Afghanistan since 2001. Part of the seeming callousness might be attributed to the story taking place between 2003 and 2006, the calmest three-year stretch of the decade-long conflict, when all the excitement (and TV coverage) was diverted to Iraq. In fact, the Afghanistan of Barker's book was even more insensitive, with fratty foreigners throwing theme parties like "Tarts and Talibs."
But back then — just 10 years ago — people blithely expected the War on Terror to end. At its most daring, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot hints that Kim would rather it keep going. She's not ready to leave, despite the worldwide hangover to come — and the daily hangovers that make her check for condom wrappers to know if she went home alone.
So it's welcome when Ficarra and Requa pop her Kabubble to let reality flood in. A sweet stroll during which she holds hands with a beau gets interrupted when a local woman calls her a whore. Colleagues get hurt. A driver drops her off at the wrong street and, stranded after midnight, the drunk and scarfless Kim sobers up fast. This city isn't really her friend.
But the party keeps going, and if we feel exhausted, that's the point. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot wants us disoriented, so that, like Kim, we forget how normal feels. When the film does get normal with a third-act romance, it's a drag. We're here to watch Tina Fey kick butt. Or really, we're here to watch Tina Fey, period, as she follows in the footsteps of her SNL co-star Kristen Wiig by tiptoeing toward serious roles.
Kim is a smart choice for Fey's next career stage. The role mimics her own life: a writer who got ripped from her desk, put in front of a camera, and told to deliver the news. (Ten bucks says Fey snatched up Barker's book as soon as New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani described the author as "sort of a Tina Fey character.") Screenwriter Carlock, an SNL/30 Rock alum, is a trustworthy hired gun who cautiously expands our idea of who Fey is and can be. This isn't Sarah Silverman jumping headlong into playing a depressed housewife in last fall's I Smile Back. Carlock lets Fey get darker than we've ever seen — and knows when to pull her back to get a laugh. (If only the Afghanistan war itself had been as well calculated.) Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is clever and complex enough to make you curious to see what Fey does next. Perhaps in 10 years, Fey won't be hosting the Golden Globes — she'll be winning Best Actress.