At first it sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit: Tina Fey, war correspondent. The Upper Darby comedy superstar built her career on being the kind of woman who gets much more excited about the prospect of eating a great cheese (girl, don't I know it) than chasing action on the front line.
So she's taking a risk in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, her first lead role in a semi-drama. She took a risk last year, too, playing against type in Sisters in which she was the loud, daring sibling opposite best friend/soul mate Amy Poehler's staid, boring sis.
Fey seemed miscast in Sisters. But she fits right into Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, playing first-time war correspondent Kim Baker, who makes the rash decision to leave a staid life in New York for a post in Afghanistan in the early 2000s.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on the memoir The Taliban Shuffle by former Chicago Tribune South Asia bureau chief Kim Barker. (One letter has been removed for the fictional Kim's name.)
The role is not that much of a stretch for Fey at the fundamental character level. Her Kim Baker is sardonic and quick-witted, funny and relatable. Essentially, this is a woman who could be friends with Fey's greatest creation, Liz Lemon.
Baker immediately regrets her decision to pack up and move away. She's ignorant of the culture she has just embedded into and does not speak any language other than English, let alone Pashto.
But soon she gets hooked on the adrenaline of reporting from a war zone. She befriends gorgeous Brit correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie, a woman who can make a correspondent's uniform khakis and button-down shirt look chic and sexy) and starts a relationship with a roguish Scottish photographer (Martin Freeman).
Fey does her best, giving her character the dark humor that's reflected in Barker's memoir. But the script, written by Robert Carlock, Fey's partner in crime from 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, never gives us a sense of who this woman really is, or who any of the characters are beyond their thirst for the story.
The movie lacks the emotional heft Fey can bring to a role. She did some excellent dramatic work in the flop This Is Where I Leave You, so she's capable of working outside of her character type.
Her Baker character also has this habit of saying that living in the "Ka-bubble," as the correspondents call their Kabul home, is not normal, that she wants to go back to the real world. It ignores the fact that, for millions of Afghans, this is normal, this is the real world. They don't get to go back home. And most of them don't get the partying perks that Kim and her friends enjoy.
But Fey is an inherently watchable actress, and that makes the movie inherently watchable. Beyond its "Liz Lemon in the desert" jokes, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot makes interesting points about Afghanistan's "forgotten war" and how the media pay attention to foreign news.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn't a great movie, but it is something rare and important: a woman's story of self-discovery - having nothing to do with her finding a husband - that has gotten room on the big screen. She takes a risk, is independent, and ultimately succeeds.