More than any other American film actress under fifty, Tina Fey is an old-school screen siren. In the 1940s — the era of Barbara Stanwyck and Judy Holliday; the era of dames whose appeal stemmed as much from their crackling brilliance as from their gorgeously irregular features — Fey would have been the queen of marquee. As it is, this Philadelphia native of Greek descent has been edging past Hollywood’s biases against grownup women ever since she sprang out of the “Saturday Night Live” writers room to deliver the Weekend Update in 2000. Now, in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” she comes into her own like the librarian who whips off her glasses to reveal the beauty already obvious to anyone paying attention.
In this adaptation of Kim Barker’s account of her years as a newspaper correspondent in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India (originally titled “The Taliban Shuffle,” the memoir’s current title references WTF in the military’s phoenetic alphabet), Fey stars as television journalist Kim Baker, who is based only in Afghanistan. What hasn’t changed: Barker/Baker’s dissatisfaction with her “mildly depressed boyfriend” (Josh Charles) and her dead-end prospects as an American journalist, which is why she volunteers to cover the war from Kabul in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
The city’s expat community is referred to as the “Kabubble” for good reason; we’re plunged into its teeming chaos of security guards, reporters, photographers, sex, booze, and drugs as wily-nily as she is, and it’s no mistake that House of Pain’s 1992 single “Jump Around” plays anachronistically throughout the entire film, which takes place during the mid-Aughts.
Beyond the basics — Baker’s hooked on the adrenaline of delivering the best stories she can by any means necessary — “WTF” doesn’t adhere to much of a straight-ahead plot. Kim befriends other correspondents — a cameo-cad Margot Robbie who looks, and in fact is, too good to be true and Martin Freeman as Iain, a Scottish photographer languishing in his burr — and develops tentative allies in the Afghanistan community, including a libidinous government official (Alfred Molina) and fixer/translator Fahim (Christopher Abbot of “James White” and “Girls”). (The uproar against casting white actors in these latter two roles is just, though both men acquit themselves admirably.)
Best are scenes in which Baker connects with locals, such as when village women ask her to intercede on their behalf with the U.S. military. But her career progression, like the progression of this narrative, is less steady than sporadically explosive. Did we expect otherwise? The course of true love never did run smooth, and at heart this is a love story — not only between Kim and Iain but between Kim and her liberation, which makes this dramedy a bit of a revelation even when it defaults to the self-consciousness of white-lady feminism.
But Fey is so great here that she transcends such awkwardness as monologues about existential crises on stationary exercise bikes. Working with “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Saturday Night Live” vets Robert Carlock (screenwriter) and Lorne Michaels (co-producer) and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“I Love You Philip Morris”), she has shed her TV double-takes and mugging to radiate a new self-possession that allows us into the character’s sadness as well as her smarts. The jokes Hollywood seems to find essential about her looks are still built in — Baker’s colleagues repeatedly describe her as a four — but Fey finally seems to trust her own on-screen presence, which in turn allows us to trust her and, by extension, the film. You could argue its rescue-thriller climax doesn’t feel earned — that Barker’s thrilling, sometimes vituperative account is undercut by a Hollywood studio unwilling to tackle anyone but the easy target of the American media — but its epilogue feels more pensive and more rewarding.
Beneath “WTF”‘s ravings lurks a useful invitation to examine the narcissism driving Western journalism and politics. A stillness presides here that offers more questions than answers, and it issues from Fey herself. What could be more grownup than that?
This was originally published on Signature.