Former war correspondent Kim Barker got the full-hair-and-makeup treatment for the TV cameras last Saturday in her suite in the Ritz-Carlton in New York City. Barker says she gave 50 TV interviews in her suite last Saturday.
“I’m clearly ‘somebody,'” she tells me, putting air quotes around “somebody.” “I’ve got full makeup on, and when I walk out I’ve got somebody carrying my bags. There’s a black car coming up for me. Everybody’s staring at me.”
“Who is that? Who is that?” she heard somebody ask. “That’s nobody,” said the next voice.
Who she actually is is a print journalist who now writes for the New York Times. Who she’s about to be confused with is her ciné-me, Tina Fey’s Hollywood version of Barker that will be infinitely better known than Barker is.
In 2011 Barker published The Taliban Shuffle, a memoir about her years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which she covered for the Chicago Tribune between 2002 and 2008. She was the barely visible narrator of the first draft, deferring to the things she had to say about the region. Friends said it was a bore.
“You’re the hook,” they told her. “You’ve got to be all in or all out.”
So as I wrote when the book came out, “in she went, her loves, drunks, and tantrums—told with just enough discretion not to overwhelm her book’s larger point, which is that the U.S. has got itself in a big mess in South Asia.”
The loves, drunks, and tantrums (not to mention the big mess) spoke so strongly to Fey that she decided to turn Barker’s book into a movie and star in it. The movie premieres in New York March 1.
Each interview Barker gave in her hotel room was roughly three-and-a-half- to five-minutes long. As a journalist herself, Barker dutifully tried to give each reporter something a little different, even though what they all wanted to know was what Tina Fey is really like and how it feels to be played by Fey in a movie. Just as dutifully, Barker said something to every one of them about Afghanistan. Giving credit where it’s due, Barker says the French reporters and somebody from Kansas City actually showed an interest in that country.
Barker understands that when the pieces air, nothing about Afghanistan is likely to make the cut. Even Barker’s appearance in the stories isn’t a sure thing. Tina Fey was giving interviews at the same time, in another suite down the corridor, and which makes better television: Barker talking about Tina Fey or Tina Fey talking about playing a reckless, hard-drinking war correspondent?
If you had 50 interviews, I asked Barker, how many did Fey have?
“Way more than me, probably,” she says. “They were going long after I left.”
When adapted by Hollywood, Barker’s book, needless to say, got tweaked. The Paramount movie is called Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; Kim Barker, Tribune reporter, has become Kim Baker, TV correspondent; and all the other names are changed too.
“Everything is sort of fictionalized,” says Barker. “They’re portraying me in a way that is more brave than I actually am. I always describe myself as more of a coward of a foreign reporter than those people who go out and do the bang-bang all the time. They make me have a romance with somebody who in real life is just a really good friend.”
“I’d like to think people will wonder why they never saw Kim Baker on TV,” says Barker, hoping her ciné-me self is credible enough for audiences to buy the facsimile.
I think something else will happen. My guess is people will watch Tina Fey and remember that they did see Kim Baker on TV. She was so bright and spunky, and whatever happened to her? War hasn’t been the same since.
“Maybe they’ll be so interested they’ll read the book,” says Barker.
Hollywood’s easy way with reality has intrigued me for a long time. A while back I wrote about Rudy, the heartwarming tale of a Notre Dame football walk-on who got to play in the last home game. Dan Devine was Notre Dame’s new coach then, and he agreed to serve as a plot device; even so, he left the theater dumbfounded at seeing himself turned into the villain of the piece, the bad guy the whole team rebelled against to get Rudy on the field.
This isn’t happening to Barker. It’s her movie, even if it isn’t precisely her life. “I don’t care,” she says. “There’s a lot of fiction in this movie but there is this sort of truthiness to it.” She’s seen it twice. She sat down to watch it the first time and said a little prayer: “Please don’t let this be bad. Please don’t let this be Anchorman set in Afghanistan.”
“And it’s not,” she assured me. There are even a couple of elements crucial to her that they “nailed.” One is “the whole absurdity of what it’s like to be in this bubble”—by day covering matters that are “deadly serious and tragic and horrible” and then collecting in the hotel bar and getting pounded. The other’s the “dead-on” relationship with her translator, Ghulam Farouq Samim. He was smart, savvy, and fearless—”far and away the most adult guy in the room,” says Barker. “Here’s a guy who would have sacrificed his life for any American journalist—not just me.” Now he’s living in Canada with his wife and four kids. His home and future are in that country, but he’d like to attend next Tuesday’s premiere in New York, and—for whatever reason—the American embassy in Ottawa wouldn’t let him enter this country.
“All he wants to do is see a premiere of a movie that’s loosely, tangentially about his experiences in Afghanistan,” says Barker. During her 50 TV interviews Saturday (and the press interviews the day before) she made sure these reporters heard about Ghulam Farouq Samim. “That’s the message I’m hitting,” Barker says. “I’m hitting it with you. Sorry. And it’s like basically, all people want to talk about is Tina Fey.”
Farouq got his visa Monday afternoon. That cleared the decks. It’s OK for Tina Fey to be the story again—not that there was a moment when she wasn’t.