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News from the front Whiskey Tango Foxtrot'

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Memoir adaptation shines a light on war correspondence

Moviegoers have long been accustomed to seeing representations of warfare onscreen. The visceral nature of combat makes for a natural transition to film, with plenty of great movies being made about soldiers and the impact war has on them.

The new movie 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,' directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and adapted by Robert Carlock from Kim Barker's memoir 'The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,' takes a look at a war zone from a different angle that of a war correspondent.

Tina Fey ('Sisters') plays Kim Barker, a television news producer who has grown frustrated with the dull routine of her life. In 2002, the opportunity arises for Kim to head to Afghanistan and reinvent her news career as a war correspondent. She leaps at the chance, leaving behind a job she has grown to hate and a long-term boyfriend (Josh Charles, 'Freeheld') to whom she's fairly indifferent.

When she lands in Afghanistan, she is met by security guy Nic (Stephen Peacocke, 'Hercules') and 'fixer' Fahim (Christopher Abbott, 'Criminal Activities'). They take her to her new home away from home, a dorm-like complex filled with a bunch of hard-living, hard-partying reporters. Kim immediately connects with rising star correspondent Tanya (Margot Robbie, 'The Big Short') and is soon learning the realities of her situation.

She winds up finding allies in unexpected places, including Marine General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton, 'Our Brand is Crisis') and Afghan politician Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina, 'Secret in Their Eyes'), each of whom grows to admire Kim though for vastly different reasons. She also finds herself in a developing situation with a crass Scottish photographer named Iain (Martin Freeman, TV's 'Fargo').

As time passes, Kim becomes increasingly lost in what the reporters call Kabul's 'Ka-bubble' as her adrenaline-fueled stay in Afghanistan begins to seem more and more normal. It becomes less clear just who she can trust and how much as the competition increases and the war she's covering begins to become a bit of a media afterthought. Ultimately, Kim has to make a decision regarding just who she wants to be and where.

At first glance, Tina Fey might seem like a bit of an odd fit for a role such as this one. However, it soon becomes clear that the intelligence and humor that are hallmarks of her performing sensibility translate quite well. In a world filled with danger and death, gallows humor makes for a welcome respite; Fey proves adept at mining the darkness while still maintaining a certain degree of levity. It's probably the best big-screen work of her career to date.

The supporting cast is strong as well. Robbie gives a great performance as Tanya; she's displaying real growth as an actor with seemingly every role. Thornton doesn't stretch much as the no-nonsense general, but his crustiness never interferes with his ability to create relationships. Freeman is delightfully coarse as Iain; he somehow builds an empathetic character on a foundation of mild egomania. Molina is a bit of a cartoon (and a bit miscast), but he gamely does his best with what he's given. And perhaps the best of the supporting bunch is Abbott. His stoic, subtle take on Fahim is wonderfully understated; it's difficult to take your eyes off him.

Co-directors Ficarra and Requa have departed from their usual oeuvre with this one; their previous work includes films like 'Focus' and 'Crazy, Stupid, Love.' While a war movie might not seem like a logical progression, the reality is that the same sorts of oddly intense relationship dynamics at play in those earlier films play a big part in this one as well.

In terms of narrative, things seem too pat at times. While the film takes great pains to tell you how incredibly dangerous it all is, the stakes never quite rise to the occasion. There's no real sense of that danger; Barker's well-being never truly seems to be in doubt. At times, one catches glimpses of a much deeper-reaching film, but mostly we spend our time close to the surface. However, the work by the actors specifically Fey, Freeman and Abbott largely overcomes those issues, making 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' as much about relationships as it is about war correspondence.

'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' might not carry quite the level of intensity that one might want, but thanks to the strong performances at its center, it still manages to be a compelling and entertaining cinematic experience.

[4 out of 5]

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