Ever notice Tina Fey’s self-deprecating smile?
In David Letterman’s last episode, she participated in the final top ten. After delivering a joke mocking the proliferation of male late night hosts, she shimmied back with a showy grin, knowing she’d thrown gentle shade. On 30 Rock, as Liz Lemon, that smirk became something of a calling card for forced enthusiasm and good faith through gritted teeth. Liz would mediate temperamental stars or egotistical execs, all while smiling twitchily. It’s subtle but top-tier comic irony.
In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Fey is Kim Baker, based on a real foreign correspondent. WTF is an adaptation of former Chicago Tribune writer Kim Barker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, about her travels as an embedded reporter. In a frazzled moment, Baker runs out of her car like a loon in the middle of sudden combat to get good video footage for her network. The way the scene plays, who knows how much enemy fire she can withstand? It’s scary as hell. But the troops she’s traveling with emerge victorious, and her footage is cable gold. She catches a stinger hitting a truck and exploding in high definition. As she re-enters her Humvee, and gives a tiny smile to her escort (a general played by a cowboy Billy Bob Thornton), Fey gives that same nervy smirk at which she’s always been great. It’s fast, but it speaks volumes about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s appeal. Trust in Fey, let her smile her way through inopportune or dicey moments, and she’ll ultimately take you for a trip to far-out, funny places.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a steady studio farce about big issues and topics, bullet-pointed and presented quickly with big stars. Written by 30 Rock alum Robert Carlock, directed by Crazy Stupid Love’s Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and produced by Fey and SNL poobah Lorne Michaels, WTF’s all there in the title of Barker’s original memoirs, after all. Barker experienced maximum aggressive displacement as the newspaper’s South Asia bureau chief from 2004 to 2009. In WTF, Baker is a lost loner, and Fey dramatizes Barker’s experiences in the Middle East in the mid-aughts. Given the ultimatum of either being fired or taking a job thousands of miles away, Baker opts for foreign correspondence.
Baker occupies the same emotional and geographical spaces as The Hurt Locker. Journalism is a different kind of war drug, after all. Ratings and a sense of power are her vices, and the Kabal region in wartime is an ample supplier. Baker starts off terrified by the region. But as she gains experience, she sees horrors and opportunities alike. Kim’s story is double-sided, as she tries her best to articulate the struggles of the local population while trading on their plight for clicks and headlines. Fey emotes with such enthusiasm and energy, full of wit and anger. She lights her eyes with tenacity as she tries to cover the setbacks faced by women in Pakistan. In other moments Fey is wild-eyed, like a gumshoe ready to knock out boys-club journalists with hard-hitting reporting while ribbing men of power.
Film-wise, Barker is a great character. Funny, acerbic, guilt-ridden, she’s richly drawn. She bags dudes, gets to call out chicanery, and is faced with seemingly impossible ordeals to save her cohorts and career. Fey’s so good, she can call her beau a “pussy” in one breath, and confidently negotiate hostage crises with top brass (and win) the next. Fey delivers the performance like the super-capable talent she is, with range and authenticity. She’s a character with a fully expressed arc, foibles and all. She’s the dramedy’s best weapon.
As a war and media story, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot hits often. It’s slightly sanitary, even snarky, but those traits act as distinguishing features. Ficarra and Requa’s general interests are in broad humor and toying with stars. They regard war as a setting for crazy occurrences, and less as a podium for rancor; complicated conflicts and regional specificity matter less than the mood of the place in that period. Martin Freeman and Margot Robbie show up as co-workers and competitors, subverting expectations only to land exactly where you think they might, when you remember that this is a movie about alpha journalists. Girls’ Christopher Abbott is Barker’s translator, Fahim. It’s race-bent casting, but Abbott has heart and soul, and he learns to change through reading Oprah. The only filming location was allegedly Albuquerque, New Mexico, but again, the settings are more about presenting a vibe (newsrooms, stock deserts, bunkers – authenticity isn’t a necessity here). Special ops soldiers aren’t so much realistic as they’re statements about hard-to-understand marching orders, or as lemmings for humor (Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” in the middle of a raid, for example).
Ficarra and Requa’s Focus, I Love You Phillip Morris, and Crazy Stupid Love were all romantic comedies of one kind or another, with subversions. The directors trade in punk spins on old tropes. It then makes sense that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is part rom-com, part memoir, and part apolitical social statement. Imagine a special crossover episode between 30 Rock and M*A*S*H. Again, this is a solid story about one’s woman’s harried experiences.
At a wedding, someone tipsily lets Barker know the American reporter embodies a very Western, very white trope of self-discovery. Somewhere, Elizabeth Gilbert’s eating her heart out. The line stings, but it serves a purpose in addressing the film’s potential minefield. But Fey, sterling in her filmic presence, aware of the stakes and her own narrative clichés, stays legitimate. And watchable, too. Through the nasty news, the dust, and the danger, that smile always remains intact.