Tyrannical despots, vast quantities of narcotics, women seen as second-class citizens: it’s hard to imagine how reporting on the war in Afghanistan could have prepared Kim Barker for Hollywood. But since her 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle was adapted by Tina Fey for her new film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Barker has been getting a taste of the Hollywood lifestyle.
Barker’s book is a frank, funny account of her time as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Chicago Tribune, and is a world away from traditionally macho blood-and-thunder frontline stories. Barker was always an unconventional war reporter, already in her thirties when the 9/11 attacks first inspired her to head overseas. She eventually worked her way up to the position of south Asia bureau chief, reporting on the resurgence of the Taliban and painting a nuanced portrait of life in the two countries that took her from maternal health clinics to interviewing notorious warlord Pacha Khan Zadran. The book contrasts these scenes with the adrenaline-lust of journalists working in war zones and the manic lives they lead there. She describes wild parties at the “Fun House” where she lived and at the notorious L’Atmosphere bar.
These debauched nights are exuberantly recreated in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. The film wears a thin veil of fiction: Fey’s character is a TV news anchor; her surname is “Baker” rather than “Barker”; Barker’s friendship with documentary maker Sean Langan inevitably becomes a romance with a Scottish photographer played by Martin Freeman. But the absurd theatre of war it portrays is drawn directly from Barker’s real-life journalistic experiences. As it becomes increasingly hard to get editors interested in Afghan stories, we see reporters go to ever more life-endangering lengths in search of an attention-grabbing scoop. It’s a comedy with something serious to say about America’s lack of interest in how its own wars are fought.
Here, Barker tells us how a prophetic New York Times review hooked Fey, what it’s like watching a movie about your life and what donkey porn can tell us about democracy.