Interview: Kim Barker, Real-Life Basis for ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’

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CHICAGO – In 2011, author Kim Barker released a press memoir with the odd title of “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Tina Fey was interested in adapting the book for film – and portraying Barker – so “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” was born. The film opens on March 4th, 2016.

Kim Barker was the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009, based in New Delhi and Islamabad. Her press memoir covers her years there, through the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the corruption in Afghanistan, and the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In the film version based on the book, they altered Ms. Barker’s name – she is Kim Baker as portrayed by Tina Fey – and instead of being a print reporter, the Fey character is a on-air broadcast journalism. But the morality of the book remains in the film, and the futility of informing the American public about the warring factions – including the United States involvement – is also there.

Tina Fey
Tina Fey in the Role of Kim Barker [Baker in the Film] in ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Kim Barker was recently in Chicago, where she worked for many years, on a promotion tour for the film. She spoke to HollywoodChicago.com about the reporter’s life, and the years she covered the “Taliban Shuffle.”

HollywoodChicago.com: The film was, and I’m sure the book is, so reflective on the bigger issues of humanity. Besides just life and death, what is it about a war zone that defines what it is like to be human?

Kim Barker: This sounds like a cliché, but you never feel more alive than when you’re covering that situation, that close to mortality, because it does remind us that we’re all just human, and we have a very short time on this earth. I see my time there in slow motion, it seems like yesterday I was going over there – it felt like Technicolor.

I also felt lucky that I was born here. If I was born in Afghanistan, I would have had a completely different life. I always tried to remember that when I was there, and tried to see the nuance of a different culture and religion. Islam is not portrayed in the United States in a nuanced way. It’s all extremist and militants, but when you’re there it’s not like that at all.

HollywoodChicago.com: So obviously the film takes some liberties, since you were a print reporter rather than on air. How do you think that switch changes the tenor of the story, in the sense the broadcast journalism is different from print journalism?

Barker: I’ve actually had this debate with many of my print journalist friends. There was a bit of a disappointment…I’m a print reporter and I feel strongly about my craft. But I get it…typing on deadline doesn’t work that well visually. [laughs] The biggest drama is whether you’ll be able to file on time. They use the broadcast angle to do narration in the film, and policy through the questions she’s asking.

I did see the film with some Chicago Tribune friends, and they were saying there were many great films about print journalists! Did it have to be a TV reporter? But I just said if that’s the worst thing you can say about it, I’m okay with it.

HollywoodChicago.com: Tina Fey gave one her best film performances portraying an aspect of you. What was the key question she asked you that came out in her performance when you saw the final result?

Barker: We actually didn’t meet that much. Most of my meetings took place with Robert Carlock, the screenwriter. When Tina and I met, most of it was about ‘were you nervous going there the first time?’ She was focused on the beginning of the process. What I like about her performance was the serious side of it, and there were many scenes where you knew exactly what she was thinking.

HollywoodChicago.com: One of the points in the film was telling – despite the media switch – is that even though almost to a person we will admit to supporting the troops, but often we don’t understand what that war is all about, and the media doesn’t inform us in that way. What do we lose, both in what war is, and who we are, when we’re blind to what actually is going on?

Barker: I have read many stories, especially in the ramp-up of the Iraq war from 2004 to 2007, from the people who were actually based there, which were mostly print reporters. If you read these stories, and you all the way through, you can know what is going on there. You can know what is going on with Afghanistan and the different tribes, and you can know what is going on with the military danger there. I just don’t think anybody really read them here.

If you go back and read them, you’d see it, but there is a fatigue to war. People in general are tired of hearing about Afghanistan, about Syria, about Libya. And all these things are going on. I don’t think it’s a lack of material, I just don’t think a lot of people care anymore.

HollywoodChicago.com: The Vietnam War came to be unpopular because the media was willing to show the death and destruction back then. When do you think covering wars changed from that, where the military controls the message more, and it’s about ‘shock and awe’ rather than ‘death and destruction’?

Kim Barker
Reporter Kim Barker
Photo credit: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Barker: I see your point in the beginning of the wars we’ve recently fought, such as the Iraq conflict. And the military ‘embed’ program [in which reporters are placed with the military] in many ways fostered the different coverage. When you give media reporters access to actual troop interaction, it creates a natural bond. This is especially true with reporters who had never been to Iraq or Afghanistan before. There is a tendency to see it through the soldiers’ eyes, and it’s natural to care for them, and root for them. Plus they are protecting you. We’re not just journalists out there, we are human beings.

But as time goes in something like that, you do get some nuance. You get reporters that are veterans of the embed and begins to know the country and culture better, and tell both sides of the story. Embeds, no matter what you think of them, is vital in providing that part of the story. I thank the military for doing it.

HollywoodChicago.com: Funding and profit are important to keep substantial and investigative reporting going. With the decline of information profits in newspapering, the emphasis on ‘happy news’ and horse races in broadcast news, what do you see as the future of journalism, or are we seeing its death rattle as we know it?

Barker: I hope we’re not seeing that. I’ve been lucky, because I’ve been able to stay in it. It is fracturing, and people are trying to figure out new models, and the non-profit model is one way. It has to be a way to make money and do good journalism.

Americans should pay for news, I know that is ‘pie in the sky’ at this point. People are saying to me, ‘shouldn’t the movie be more like the book, because the audience gets their history from it?’ And I think, are they really doing that?

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” opens everywhere on March 4th. Featuring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina and Billy Bob Thornton. Screenplay adapted by Robert Carlock, based on a memoir by Kim Barker. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Writer, Editorial Coordinator
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2016 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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