‘Whiskey Tango’ author thinks film got core story right

Soren Andersen
Seattle Times
Former Chicago Tribune reporter Kim Barker in Chicago doing publicity for the movie "Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot" based on her book, "The Taliban Shuffle," on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Your life. On the big screen.

Yourself. Portrayed by a famous Hollywood star. In this case, Tina Fey.

You. Yes, you, Kim Barker, former metro reporter at The Seattle Times (from 1999 to 2000), then later at the Chicago Tribune, currently at The New York Times. How do you think Fey did playing you as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” opening this week? How accurately did she capture the real Kim Barker?

You, which is to say, she, can’t really say.

“It’s probably better to ask somebody who knows me and observes me about what they think of it, rather than me, because I’m kind of too close to this story,” Barker said by phone from Boston during a promotional tour for the movie.

When “I’m watching it” — she’s seen the picture twice now — “I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, I’m seeing a mirror.’ Because I have no idea what I look like when I’m talking. I have no idea what I act like. I don’t study myself that closely because I’m busy living.”

She’s lived a pretty full life so far. The part of that life Hollywood deemed movieworthy is chronicled in her 2011 memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In it, she tells tales variously wild, comical and poignant of her years as South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. Between 2004 and 2009, she covered the war in Afghanistan and unrest in Pakistan, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

She was, by her own admission, “the most unlikely foreign correspondent ever born, the most improbable person to contend with suicide bombs and the real threat of nuclear war,” she writes in her memoir. The product of a sheltered Montana childhood, “I was a neurotic, everything-o-phobic child.”

When she went overseas in her early 30s, she spoke only English and knew virtually nothing of the customs of the countries she was assigned to cover. And yet, as soon as she landed, she knew she had found her true calling.

During the one meeting she had with Fey before production on the movie started — a luncheon at a trendy restaurant in midtown Manhattan on, as it happened Sept. 11, 2014 — Fey asked her if she was scared the first time she arrived in Pakistan.

“Not really,” Barker replied. “There were certain things that would happen that would shock you out of your scaredness, but it was more like I was excited. I was excited to see if I could do it.

“From Day One, I was like, ‘Yeah. I like this. I love this.’ ”

“Never had I felt as alive as in Pakistan and Afghanistan, so close to chaos, so constantly reminded of how precious, temporary, and fragile life was,” she writes in her memoir, now retitled “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” to coincide with the release of the movie.

She is a print journalist to her core, and so she’s a bit bothered by the fact that in the movie, Fey’s character, called Kim Baker, is a cable-TV news reporter.

“We hate that as print reporters,” Barker said, “but I get why they did it.” Camera in hand, Fey-as-Baker runs straight into the middle of a firefight to film the action. It’s a very cinematic thing to do.

Fey was the driving force in getting the movie made, first learning of it from a glowing review of Barker’s book in The New York Times in 2011. After reading it, Fey persuaded her good friend from her “Saturday Night Live” days, “SNL” creator/producer Lorne Michaels, to co-produce the movie with her and also pushed the Paramount studio to option the rights to the book. And of course, she cast herself in the lead.

Barker had meetings with screenwriter Robert Carlock and learned that significant changes would be made in her story to make it more Hollywood-friendly. Renaming the character Baker and making her a TV reporter were parts of that process. Keeping the focus strictly on Afghanistan and eliminating the Pakistan sections was another. A Marine raid to free a captive Western photographer from the Taliban was a total invention.

“That’s fine,” Barker said. “I’m not going to complain about that. I think they kept it true to the core of the book. That’s what I care about.

“The thing I feared the most is that we would be ‘Anchorman in Afghanistan,’ ” a silly comedy. “That is not my story,” she said emphatically.

These days, working as a member of the special investigative team on The New York Times metro desk, she does “gritty straight reporting.” She’s kicked what she concedes amounted to an addiction to the kind of dangerous, on-the-edge journalism she did in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But she hasn’t kicked her addiction to reporting. More specifically: print reporting.

In a digital, video-obsessed age, she said, “I’m a dinosaur,” who is “driven to write stories. It’s the part of journalism that I love. I love talking to people ... and digging for information.” And above all, “I love storytelling.”

“As a journalist, you’re always craving some level of excitement. You’re craving a good story.”