Movies

'Ma'am' to the slaughter

'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' works as feminist war dramedy

The first thing to say about "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" is "Good on you, Tina Fey." Because this feminist war dramedy -- destined to open at fourth place in box-office receipts -- is a vanity project done right. Taking her cachet and cashing it in on worthy but uncommercial material, enlisting her "30 Rock" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" partner Robert Carlock to write the script, and shepherding the project as producer (along with Ian Bryce and her old boss Lorne Michaels), Fey allows the buck to stop at her.

Carlock's smart adaptation of Kim Barker's memoir "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan" gives directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa ("Crazy, Stupid, Love") a strong basis for character-based comedy with a dramatic kick. Fey plays a fictionalized version of print journalist Barker: TV journalist Kim Baker. Baker has wearied of writing news copy "for dumb, pretty people to read," so a chance to embed in Afghanistan in 2003 piques her interest, and before she knows it, a three-month stint turns into three years.

Life in Kabul, a.k.a. "the Kabubble," means dorm-style living amongst friendly-rival reporters and security personnel. Being a woman has its disadvantages (peeing is a challenge where Sharia law reigns and Marines have more important concerns) and its potential advantages (as one of the only Western women around, Kim immediately rates as "a solid Kabul 9.5").

Much of the suspense of "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," for better and worse, concerns which colleague Kim will deem worthy of sleeping with her. Egged on by fellow correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), Kim sizes up the men who surround her: her Afghan "fixer" Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott of "Girls"), Scottish freelance photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman of "Sherlock"), scrawny cameraman "Tall Brian" (Nicholas Braun), brawny bodyguard Nic (Stephen Peacocke).

Marine General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) warns her off of his men, but Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina), the Attorney General of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, would like little more than to bed the appalled Kim. As Kim earns respect and otherwise forges relationships with all of the above, she gets the lay of the land, realizing that she's got 99 problems, but a dude isn't one. In a manner not too far off from TV's "M*A*S*H," "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" locates rueful humor not only from familiar characters under unfamiliar duress (Liz Lemon under fire, let's say), but from dollops of political and social satire.

"WTF" isn't especially interested in the politics or the people of Afghanistan -- it's really about the white lady in their midst -- but Carlock gets his shots in at the media and the military ("Hearts and minds ... the two best places to shoot somebody"), as well as Islamic patriarchy. Above all, as the somewhat tough-minded story of one woman finding her strength and what truly matters to her 6,700 miles from home, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" is a good look for Fey as a movie star.

=I Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images. One hour, 52 minutes.=

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