Journalism is having a moment at the movies.
Days after the journalism procedural "Spotlight" won best picture at the Academy Awards, Paramount is releasing "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," a comic drama about war reporting with Tina Fey as a rookie correspondent finding her way.
Fey plays Kim Baker, a 40-something New York TV producer summoned to a meeting of "unmarried, childless personnel" to consider a three-month assignment embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Three months becomes three years, 2004 to 2006, as Baker evolves from clueless newbie to savvy reporter, navigating the country's repressive cultural norms and the off-the-clock lifestyle of drunken debauchery shared by her expatriate colleagues.
Longtime Fey collaborator Robert Carlock ("30 Rock," "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt") based the screenplay on former Chicago Tribute reporter Kim Barker's memoir "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
If "finding yourself" in your 40s is a cinematic cliché, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" is guilty. And it will surely be criticized for casting white actors as key Afghan characters. But the film offers a fresh look at the adrenaline-laced lifestyle of war correspondents and a timely criticism of TV news. And it delivers some laughs, too.
Fey's Baker is sorely unprepared for her new circumstances. It's like she's even lost her New York smarts when she takes out a wad of American cash on a busy Kabul street. She forgets her headscarf and barges into places where women aren't allowed.
Her translator, Fahim (Christopher Abbot), tries to protect her in the field, while fellow journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) guides her through the rowdy ex-pat social scene.
As Baker adapts to her new cultures, she develops a professional relationship with an Afghan official, Sadiq (Alfred Molina, always outstanding), and a romantic one with fellow reporter Iain (Martin Freeman). Both test the limits of how far she's willing to go for a story.
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" ("WTF," get it?) may be more drama than comedy, which suits the subject matter. Many of the laughs come from subtitles translating the local language Baker inevitably misunderstands. Others come from Fey's bumbling and Col. Walter Hollanek's (Billy Bob Thornton), no-nonsense intolerance for such behavior.
Ultimately, Baker faces two challenges in the film: the farfetched one of rescuing her boyfriend from Taliban kidnappers, and the more realistic one of not finding an audience for news from what one soldier she interviews describes as a "forgotten war, capital F, capital W."
"Everyone loves the troops," a TV producer tells Baker, but no one wants to see them on TV anymore.
As newspapers have closed and news conglomerates grown, realistic portrayals of the people who gather news are critical to the survival of journalism as a democratic institution. Like the HBO documentary "Jim: The James Foley Story," "WTF" explores what motivates war correspondents, that pursuit of adrenaline and truth. Like "Spotlight," which follows four investigative reporters uncovering the Catholic Church's child-molestation scandal, "WTF" shows the tenacity characteristic of reporters on any beat.
So let journalism have its moment, "WTF." Oscar and Tina Fey are fine representatives.
What: "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot." Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. A Paramount Pictures release
Star rating (out of four):
With: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Josh Charles, Alfred Molina, Martin Freeman
MPAA rating: R (restricted — under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for "pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images"
Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes
Playing at: Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield), Berkshire Mall Cinema 10 (Lanesborough), and Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington)