Review: Tina Fey anchors ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ with intelligence and charm

I'm not sure Tina Fey was meant to be a movie star.

She is, no question about it, a dazzling wit, and I think she can be very funny onstage as well. So far, though, Hollywood has not figured out what to do with Fey as a leading actress because she simply doesn't fit the cookie-cutter archetypes that so many actresses are forced to play, and it's left her in a weird place as an actress. She's obviously talented, but who's writing the roles that she could play?

As it turns out, all it takes are directors like Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and a writer like Robert Carlock, who worked with Fey on 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I like Ficarra and Requa. I don't think every film they've made is great, but they have a good eye for both character and detail. My favorite film of theirs is still I Love You, Phillip Morris, but working from the book, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days In Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, they've made something that is easy to enjoy, and it feels like it's grounded in honest observation, something that was totally missing from last fall's similarly-themed Rock The Kasbah.

Fey stars as Kim Baker, a woman stuck writing copy for other people to read on the air. She is given an opportunity to go to Afghanistan as a war correspondent and warned that the real action has moved on to Iraq. She's willing to blow up the life she's been living, though, and much of Kim's arc in the film has to do with simply figuring out who she is and what she wants to be, and Fey does admirable work here. If you're used to her big broad comic performances, that's not what you're getting. Instead, it's Fey's intelligence that gets to shine through here as a character who is capable but inexperienced dropped into a world where her gender defines everything she does. She's not just having to learn how to be a good war correspondent… she's doing it in a culture where women are not considered equal, and where their basic human rights are routinely ignored by the law.

It's a good cast, with strong supporting work from Martin Freeman, Margot Robbie, Billy Bob Thornton, and Nicholas Braun among others. There is something troubling, though, about casting Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott (both very good actors) as the two primary Aghan characters in the film. Abbott is a talented guy, and his work last year in James White was remarkable. But despite the subtle grace notes he plays as Kim's guide/translator Fahim, I just kept wondering why they didn't cast an actual Afghan in the part. After all, they already have Tina Fey in the lead. If you look at the poster or the ad campaign, it's not like they have Molina or Abbott front and center. Any arguments made about bankability go out the window when the part you're casting is a supporting role. That's where you can do the right thing and hire the right person for the part. It is enormously frustrating in 2016 to sit in a theater watching white American actors playing parts that require them to transform instead of hiring someone who can help bring genuine authenticity to the part.

As told, the story is a little bit painless, with Kim sort of gliding through the experience, and the best moments in the movie are the ones that cut a little deeper. It feels like so many studio movies feel, like there was no single unified vision of what this film could be. I like the way Xavier Grobet's photography sets a tone somewhere between studio comedy and gritty indie film, which makes sense. This is the guy who shot both Before Night Falls and What To Expect When You're Expecting, after all. At its best, the film conveys a real sense of what it feels like to live and work in an active war zone, even one that's been largely forgotten, and the film makes some cogent points about how what you see on the American news is largely based on ratings and how “sexy” something is.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a film of modest pleasures, but what I liked about it, I liked a lot. I hope more filmmakers figure out how to write to Fey's strengths, because she's really engaging here. It's a shame there are so few smart, capable women written as leads in films, but hats off to Fey for seeing this opportunity and making the most of it. It's proof that she's got more to offer than Hollywood has asked of her so far.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is in theaters today.