When journalist Kim Baker (Tina Fey) disembarks at the Kabul International Airport, she realizes its initials spell KIA. Or in military terms, Killed in Action.
Not a great start for the stateside reporter, who, in 2003, is culled from “all the unmarried, childless personnel” in her bureau to take an assignment in Afghanistan just as America begins switching its collective attention to the Iraq War.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” serves as a familiar fish-out-of-water comedy. Funny in spots. Mostly episodic. But the drama of the tale builds to a disarmingly strong finale, where a superior cast led by a game Fey really brings the characters to life.
Fey’s mousy cynicism transported to “the Kabubble” offers a surefire setup for early chuckles, as she stumbles way out of her comfort zone. Kim has never been a field reporter. She doesn’t know the vernacular (like military abbreviations that give the film its covertly profane title). She doesn’t even realize why bringing her neon orange backpack on patrol with the Marines is a bad idea.
An officer asks, “Where are you going to hide it? A sunset?”
Fortunately, she gets some expert advice. Her interpreter, Fahim (Christopher Abbott), a local physician prior to the Taliban’s takeover, makes sure to translate only the phrases that don’t insult her. A roguish Scottish journalist (Martin Freeman) introduces her to the hard-drinking, hookah-smoking ways of the embedded press core.
She also bonds with another actual woman, a rival correspondent (Margot Robbie) who delivers the shocking news that Kim will be considered “Kabul cute.” Meaning there are so few Western women in the country that every young, buff soldier will find her attractive.
This also gets confirmed by General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), who warns her that his men need to concentrate on not being killed rather than being swept up by her “mediocre” beauty.
As Kim becomes more comfortable and eventually daring with each passing year, her network gets less interested in devoting airtime to the unending conflict.
How amusing that the first major studio release following the Oscar victory by “Spotlight” also involves real-life journalists. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” earns its “based on a true story” tag by adapting Chicago Tribune correspondent Kim Barker’s book “The Taliban Shuffle.” As with most Hollywood versions, many of the details are shuffled. (For instance, all the roles depicting TV reporters were in reality populated by print journalists. Boo that!) Yet the movie highlights the same absurdities and tragedies the author underwent, albeit in a more multiplex-friendly way.
The movie also arrives at the same truth as another Oscar winner: “The Hurt Locker.” The adrenaline kick of danger is like a drug addiction that needs to be increasingly fed. And often, as her confidant Fahim warns while recalling the hooked patients he’s treated, the result leads to either withdrawal or death.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” co-directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the team behind last year’s “Focus”) and adapted by former “Saturday Night Live” writer Robert Carlock, doesn’t try to depict the sweeping totality of warfare. Rather, the movie presents one person’s ground-level view of this particular “forgotten war.”
It’s a movie where the subtler small scenes resonate more than the clunkier big ones. Toward the end, Kim must say goodbye to Fahim, but because he is a Muslim — and they are in public — he is not allowed to touch her. Frozen in the moment, Kim confesses this is usually a time when they would hug.
That’s not the world they live in. Yet the way these two (and the filmmakers) handle this farewell represents a perfect symbol for Kim’s bittersweet experience in the Kabubble.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’
Rated R. Time: 1:52.