How Journalist Kim Barker's Memoir Became the Basis of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

When the New York Times reviewed journalist Kim Barker's 2011 memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it noted that she depicted herself as a Tina Fey type of character in the book. In a recent phone interview, she admits she indeed had Fey in mind as she wrote about her experiences in New Delhi and Islamabad from 2004 to 2009 as she served as the South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune.

"She was one of the people I was channeling," Barker says. "I think she's hilarious and really smart. I loved 30 Rock. I like Kristen Wiig and any of those people. Nora Ephron is another example of a woman who uses humor effectively with real life. Sometimes, I would write things that were too serious, and I tried to make them funny. But sometimes there were things that weren't, and I would just let them be serious. War is obviously very serious."

Tina Fey read The New York Times review, picked up Barker's book and enlisted Saturday Night Live pal Lorne Michaels to help her finance a film based on Barker's book. Fey even offered to star as Barker in the resulting movie, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. It opens areawide on Friday.

"I found out the night of my book party in New York that they were optioning it and that she was going to play me," says Barker. "It all seemed theoretical at the time. I have a lot of friends who that's happened to. I didn't think it was going to happen. It's Hollywood, you're talking about doing M*A*S*H 2.0. The odds were not high that this was actually going to work out."

But it did work out, and Fey plays the part perfectly, balancing the drama and dark humor found in the book, even if Barker has been transformed from a writer to a TV reporter.

"In this film, I think she shows her range in this role that she hasn't necessarily shown before," Barker says. "She's done some dramatic roles. It's rare for her to do a role that's funny and dramatic. I think she shows her range here. I'm not saying this just because it's me, but I think it's her best role."

Much like Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 or Robert Altman's film M*A*S*H, Whiskey provides social commentary while delivering caustic humor. It tackles everything from women's issues to the ethics of being a foreign war correspondent. The film's final scenes take a swipe at Barker's old boss, Chicago Tribune owner Sam Zell.

"It was very difficult going on as Sam Zell bought the newspaper and the emphasis became more local," she says. "He has no clue as to how journalism works. For whatever reason, my name and the fact that I was in Afghanistan became a real target for Sam Zell. It was very frustrating. You felt like what you were covering was so important and so much blood and treasure had been spent there, you wanted people to read about it."

She says she understands that the public has tired of hearing about war. But she says that makes it all the more important that media coverage doesn't dissipate.

"I get it; there's a sense of war fatigue," says Barker, who now works as an investigative reporter at The New York Times. "There's still a real sense of war fatigue. That's why I was trying to write this in a darkly comedic way. I wanted to find a way to make people pay attention to everything that had happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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