DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. From 2004 to 2009, Kim Barker served at the South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, covering Afghanistan and Pakistan. Her memoir of that period has been adapted into a movie called "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot." Tina Fey plays a character based on Barker, and the cast includes Martin Freeman and Margot Robbie. Critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: As a critic, I try to stay neutral about movies before I see them, but I really wanted "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" to be great. It's based on a barbed memoir by Kim Barker called "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days In Afghanistan And Pakistan." And its stars Tina Fey, out of her comfort zone, just as Barker was a fish out of water when, in 2004, she began covering the Afghanistan occupation for the Chicago Tribune. My hopes were also raised by the comedy vets behind the scenes - writer Robert Carlock from "30 Rock," co-producer Lorne Michaels of "Saturday Night Live" and directors Glen Ficarra and John Requa, who wrote the gonzo near-classic "Bad Santa." Maybe, I thought, the movie would spotlight the absurdity as well as the horror of war in the vein of "M*A*S*H," Robert Altman's film, not the aggressively humanistic TV show.
Well, the movie isn't bad. For a while, I even told myself I liked it, even as it missed one mark after another. But in the end, it's shapeless and blandly apolitical, apart from its watered-down feminism. You see, Fey's Kim Baker - changed from Barker - transforms herself from a neophyte reporter, condescended to by male war correspondents, soldiers and Afghan officials, into a hard-charging political animal who speaks the language fluently and parties as hard as men. That's about as edgy as a sitcom. The movie opens with Baker, here not a newspaper reporter but a lifestyle news producer for a cable station, getting picked for Kabul because the big deal correspondents have moved to Iraq and because she's single and without kids. When she arrives in Afghanistan, she doesn't know the language, so she can't hear how Afghans ridicule her. She's also a klutz and quickly reminded of her relative lack of hotness - the movie's view, not mine - by the presence of a gorgeous Aussie blonde TV reporter played by Margot Robbie, who also has eyes for Baker's bodyguard.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT")
MARGOT ROBBIE: (As Tanya Vanderpoel) Can I ask a favor, Kim? And absolutely feel free to say no.
TINA FEY: (As Kim Baker) Yeah, sure.
ROBBIE: (As Tanya Vanderpoel) I hate to even bring it up. I feel so rude even asking this.
FEY: (As Kim Baker) No, it's fine.
ROBBIE: (As Tanya Vanderpoel) Can I have sex with your security guys?
FEY: (As Kim Baker) Oh, by all means.
ROBBIE: (As Tanya Vanderpoel) Don't just say that to be polite.
FEY: (As Kim Baker) No, I wouldn't. I'm not.
ROBBIE: (As Tanya Vanderpoel) Even Nic.
FEY: (As Kim Baker) That's - no, that would never happen, so you're good.
ROBBIE: (As Tanya Vanderpoel) Hey, no, Kim, don't say that. You could have Nic. (Unintelligible) You have a serious piece of [expletive].
FEY: (As Kim Baker) Thank you, oh, that's nice.
ROBBIE: (As Tanya Vanderpoel) 'Cause you're what? I mean, you're, like, a seven - six, seven in New York? Here, you're a nine, borderline 10.
FEY: (As Kim Baker) What are you here, like, a 15?
ROBBIE: (As Tanya Vanderpoel) Yeah.
EDELSTEIN: I have a female colleague who gets annoyed that Tina Fey seems to go out of her way in her movies to deride her looks, as if she weren't such an attractive woman. As an Afghanistan 10, the character does get moves put on her. Alfred Molina plays an Afghan official who crusades against alcohol and immorality but always tries to bed her. And the focus of the movie becomes Kim's rowdy but increasingly serious romance with a Scottish photographer played by Martin Freeman, who starts sleazy and ends up a puppy dog.
You might have winced when I said Molina was an Afghan official. You might wince again when I say that Christopher Abbott, best known from "Girls" but revelatory in last year's film "James White," plays Baker's fixer and translator, Fahim. So it's another movie in which non-Westerners are played by white Americans and Brits with ruddy makeup. Both actors are excellent, but the response on social media has been justly fierce. Reading Barker's book, I was struck by how incisive it is and how the carnage is not just tragic but the product of chaos and misdirection. Her descriptions of U.S.-endorsed President Hamid Karzai and his corrupt family are brutal. But Karzai isn't in the movie. And criticism of the occupation is confined to exasperated looks by a general played superbly by Billy Bob Thornton.
The movie's only serious criticism is reserved for Baker's television network, which doesn't think Americans care about Afghanistan - kind of hypocritical given this film's lack of substance. It's hard for comic actors used to pulling faces just to be on screen, but Tina Fey does a good job. I liked watching her. The part, though, isn't filled in. When Baker announces that she's gotten too used to the madness of Afghanistan, that she's worried she's thinking of it as normal, the sentiment comes out of nowhere. The dramatic arc in "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" is nonexistent. The movie evaporates in the mind like water in the Afghan desert.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show, we talk about the American eugenics movement and the sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans deemed physically or mentally unfit. It was sanctioned by a 1927 Supreme Court decision. Minorities, the poor, even promiscuous women were often targeted. American eugenics inspired the Nazis. We'll talk with Adam Cohen, author of "Imbeciles." Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.