"She's Kim Baker, I'm Kim Barker," Kim Barker tells me. She's the New York Times metro reporter and author of The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, on which the Paramount Pictures film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based. Barker is referring to Tina Fey and her performance as Barker's embedded journalist in Afghanistan.
"I think she did a really good job," Barker says. "I've seen a lot of her performances. Obviously I saw 30 Rock, and this is, I think, the most nuanced performance that she's ever given. And I'm not just saying it because it's supposed to be me."
In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Fey is a television news copywriter living an ordinary life when her network opts to send a correspondent to Afghanistan. An executive gathers potential reporters fitting a certain profile – those with little to lose – to offer them the position. Fey's Kim Baker accepts and is quickly in country learning the ropes. She's green, doesn't speak any foreign languages, and has no knowledge of Afghan customs.
There she meets photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), fellow reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), and her restrained, cautious guide Fahim (Christopher Abbott). Baker quickly learns the ropes about reporting on an "embed" (embedding with a military unit) and life in the "kabbuble" (a play on words describing how life for foreign civilians in Kabul is life in a bubble). She also meets Afghan power broker Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina) who takes an immediate liking to Fey's Kim Baker.
Though there are some combat sequences when Baker embeds with U.S. Marines (led by a Marine officer played by Billy Bob Thornton), Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (WTF for short) is not a war movie. The movie is a dramatization of the book, but still remains true to Kim Barker's wartime experiences. Fans of Barker's book will find plenty to love in the film.
"They make Tina Fey way braver than I ever was," Barker says. She adds that adequately recreating the book would be unnecessarily difficult. The narrative arcs are the same. Her interaction with supporting characters are the same. Robert Carlock, a regular 30 Rock writer, and WTF screenwriter, did a lot of independent research on top of Barker's book.
"All the events depicted in the film happened to me or to someone I know," Barker says. "I think the movie is a great representation and that's what I care about most. I want people to see the movie, enjoy the movie, and then think about what the real story behind it was."
The choice to depict Fey's Baker as a broadcast journalist — as opposed to Kim Barker's print reporting for the Chicago Tribune — is an apt choice. The movie tells the broad story of a reporter's time in Afghanistan, hitting all the significant events, influential characters, and memorable moments in a quick retelling of the real Barker's experience. The book is written by a print journalist, full of detail, nuance, and explanation, a great primer for truly understanding the tribes and conflicts in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a funny, sharp, yet glossy look at the life of a war reporter covering a very real conflict. It depicts the troubles women have as war reporters and the inequalities women face in the region. The movie shows a journalist's first ever encounter with U.S. Marines and touches on moments that are at times funny and at times trying, just like many war zone experiences. Viewers may walk away wanting something more, and they will be able to get that something from the Barker's book, which the reporter wanted all along.
Originally published 2016.