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How does Tina Fey's slightly absurdist sense of humor play out in the real world?
When the real world is as strange as the war zone in Afghanistan the setting for the seriocomic "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" screenwriter Robert Carlock, Fey's longtime writing partner, hits on Fey's type of biting humor like a laser-guided missile.
The movie is based on "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan," the memoir by journalist Kim Barker, who was South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009. In the movie, Barker becomes Fey's character, Kim Baker, who in 2003 becomes bored with her New York life writing news copy for a news channel, and a dead-end relationship with her frequently out-of-town boyfriend (Josh Charles) and accepts a three-month stint covering Afghanistan.
Three months becomes three years, as Kim evolves from a clueless neophyte to a hard-bitten war correspondent. She also observes, and takes part in, the dancing-past-the-graveyard debauchery of the Western press corps fueled by alcohol, drugs and random shagging. She strikes up friendships with some of her fellow reporters, including a competitive Australian reporter (Margot Robbie) and a lascivious Scottish photographer ("Sherlock's" Martin Freeman).
Kim also encounters an array of unusual characters involved in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. They include a no-nonsense Marines general (Billy Bob Thornton) and a back-from-exile Afghan official (Alfred Molina) who regularly tries to get her into his bed which he keeps in his office.
The longer she stays in the surreal world of being a Kabul correspondent what they ruefully call the "Ka-bubble" the more Kim is willing to push to get a story. As she does, she battles disinterest in Afghanistan from her New York bosses, while being warned by her local fixer, Fahim (Christopher Abbott), that she's becoming addicted to the danger.
Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the team who made the con-game thriller "Focus" and the romantic comedy "Crazy, Stupid, Love.") capture the constant grit and random horrors of a war zone. They also home in on the small details of Carlock's script that follow Kim's gradual education in the Afghan culture which are the moments where Fey's sardonic yet hopeful portrayal truly shines.
"Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" stays smart on politics one character's cynical appraisal finds Brezhnev's Soviet Union and the British Empire equally at fault for the mess in Afghanistan while remaining largely apolitical. Instead it gives a clear-eyed view of the human costs of war: the physical sacrifices of the military men and women fighting it, the emotional costs to the journalists who cover it and the psychic toll on the civilians in the middle.
'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot'
Tina Fey gives a strong performance, melding comedy with drama, as a war correspondent in Afghanistan.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, March 4.
Rating • R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images.
Running time • 112 minutes.