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A Frog in Boiling Water: Kim Barker on "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"

In 2011, Kim Barker published “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” a memoir about her time working as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in the mid-to-late 2000’s. An entertaining book that is also informative from a firsthand perspective about the systemic failures within the War on Terror, it was picked up by Tina Fey’s production company Little Stranger, with screenwriter Robert Carlock given adapting duties. In the final version as directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Barker’s story gets some Hollywood sensationalizing, regarding a bigger emphasis on wartime rowdiness that includes sex, violence and news ratings; Fey plays the TV journalist, now known as Kim Baker, caught in the middle of it all. 

A few distinct bits of Barker's novel have resonated into the film version, particularly involving the people she knew while abroad. While in Afghanistan, she started a deep friendship with her translator and guide Farouq, known in the film as Fahim (played by Christopher Abbott). And in what becomes a bookending passage for "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," Barker also had a brief interaction during an embed with a particular soldier, whose significance to the overall story raises the question of how much one could ever be in control of, especially when very bad things can suddenly happen. 

RogerEbert.com sat down with Barker to discuss “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" and her memoir, the true story’s “multi-dimensional characters” that made it into the movie, being "a frog in boiling water," and more. 

When writing the book that started this all, what responsibility did you feel when writing about the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan? 

I felt a lot of responsibility in portraying the Afghans and the Pakistanis I knew with nuance and respect. Because I think it’s very easy in America … and I see this so much, this idea of demonizing Muslims as some sort of other. Whereas there’s a range with everything. I had folks over there in Pakistan and Afghanistan who would have given their lives to save mine, and that was in many ways based on friendship, and also just on loyalty and chivalry because that’s what you do. And I felt very strongly that I wanted to portray Farouq as a very rich soul. I went up to Canada and read him the parts that involved him, because I didn’t want it to just be left to reading in a language he didn’t grow up with. I wanted him to fully understand how he was being portrayed. He had problems with certain parts. He was like, “I don’t come across well here,” and I said, “Well, let me read you this part where I don’t come across well either,” because it’s accurate. And at one point he was like, “Oh my god, I didn’t know you knew that,” and I said “Oh, I knew that.” I said, “Look, you’re a multi-dimensional character. I want you to be like we all are, fully developed.” So he got it, and he signed off on everything. It was very funny, I brought him here for the book launch; he was able to come to Chicago and he was so proud, because he was so proud of working for the Chicago Tribune. And he would stand in front of audiences at these book things like, “I’m a multi-dimensional character!” [Laughs] 

Along with Farouq/Fahim, another key character from the book that makes the leap to the film edition is the soldier who is injured not long after you featured him in a piece. Do you know if he has read your book? Did you get a reaction from him? 

I don’t know if he’s read the book. The way I found out about what happened—and of course he only lost one leg in real life—is that I came back and was researching the book. There was something about him that I always found so charming, so smart and funny. I remembered that I knew after that embed that I had a friend go in after me, and she said to me after, “Look, I don’t think things went well after your embed. Nobody wanted to talk to me, everybody was very hostile about talking to the media.” And I think those guys might have gotten moved to somewhere else, and it was nothing. I just didn’t follow up on it. It was just one of those rumor things, and the military was fine with the story, according to the spokesman. Nobody came back on me. [The soldiers] had said these things in front of commanding officers and nobody had ever said, “Don’t use that,” or anything like that. And so I came back and I was researching him and I noticed he was running and training and he had lost a leg in Afghanistan. I just felt this sinking feeling and looked for the date it was, and I think it was August of 2005, which was right after or a couple months after my story. I found him and called him. I was like, “What happened? Was this my fault?” He was just like, “I don’t blame you.” He was so generous. His wife left him after he lost his leg, and he was like “I don’t blame you at all. I met a wonderful woman,” and it was funny because they have the speech at the end [of the film], and half of that was him and half of that was this guy Doug Wankel, who was with the DEA in Afghanistan. I talked to him after this happened. [Doug] said, “Oh, you’re so important Kim, it’s all your fault.” His tone was like “nobody is special, things happen. Things happen in war.” It’s the fault of the guy who puts the bomb there, it’s bad timing, it’s like bad things happen. 

The movie focuses on a timeline of three years spent in Afghanistan, from 2003 to 2006. What’s the true timeline of your time spent in Afghanistan, and Pakistan as well? 

In real life, I first went to Pakistan in January of 2002. Then I went to Afghanistan for 3 days for a trip and ended up doing a few other things while I was over there, because Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and it was very dangerous for me to be in Pakistan because I didn’t know what I was doing. So, I got sent to India and there were riots in India. I think at a certain point I was just trying to stay one step ahead of the Metro desk, because I was having such a great time doing stories. But I went back, and during the war part of Iraq, March and April of 2003, I spent that in Afghanistan writing stories. It was kind of like, “Please run my story.” There wasn’t a lot of room for them. And then I moved over to the region in 2004, so I was there between 2004 and 2009, a long time. 

When during this timeline was your story starting to become a book? 

It was about halfway through. We started joking about it. All of the correspondents in Kabul would be like, “This is really a weird life. Somebody should write a funny book about the War on Terror.” And then it became sort of this thing like, “Oh yeah, and then I’m going to work on my book.” Everybody there is working on a book. A lot of people came out of there and did do the book. I was always like, “I’m going to do a funny, darkly comic book about the War on Terror, it’s going to be like M*A*S*H.” I didn’t know how to write a book. But always throughout my time there I would collect funny stories or send emails home. I’d take notes on the cover of my notebook. In Karachi, Pakistan there was this woman walking in the airport going to catch a flight or something. She was wearing full black abaya, and you could only see her eyes. She was holding hands with a little boy, like nine years old, and he’s wearing jeans and t-shirt that says “No Money No Honey.” For me, that is Pakistan. I couldn’t use that in the story I was working on, but I totally wrote that down and saved that. 

When your story became a movie, what was your involvement with that process? 

It had taken on its own thing. My involvement in the movie is that I feel like we sold to smart, funny people; thank you Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times for writing a book review that referred to Tina Fey. That was pretty good casting by Michiko. And I met a lot with [Fey’s] righthand man Robert Carlock, who was the show runner on “30 Rock.” He was very honest with me about the process, but I had a lot of friends who had movies optioned that never got made. And I always felt like, "I’m not going to worry about something I had no control over, this is not me. I have control over the book, and I hope they do a good job and I hope they’re true to the story." 

Do you personally see movies as separate from the book in general? 

Yeah, totally. You wouldn’t want to do a movie that’s exactly like the book, because that would be impossible to follow and really long. And you’ve got to have a narrative arc and drama in a movie, where real life might not just have that kind of drama. Most of us don’t. 

Did you get to read the script before they shot it? 

They had sent me the script in February 2014, and they’re like, “You can’t change anything in this, but this is just for your own information.” I thought, “Well, if I can’t change anything in this, why am I going to read it?” But I actually opened [the script] and I think I saw “cocaine” on the first page and I was like, “Okay, that’s enough of that.” And at a certain point my friend Rachel—who was with me in Afghanistan and she now lives in New York—was like, “You need to stop putting your head in the sand and somebody needs to read this. Because if there’s too much bad stuff in there, you’re gonna want to say something early on.” And so I said “fine” and sent it to her. I think it took her all of half-hour to read it, because it doesn’t take long that read to read a movie script. She said, “It’s fine, it’s a good movie. You’ll cringe at some points because you seem heroic, which I know you pride yourself on being not heroic in real life.” [Laughs] I would never run towards explosions. Run the other direction! 

There's an element of understandable isolation in the book and film, regarding a possible disconnect from the world outside of the space you were covering. 

You’ve got your readers here in Chicago, and you’re over there in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I’m thinking that everything I write is brilliant and of course everybody in Chicago is waiting for the next story I write about the most important countries in the world. That’s what I’m thinking. I have no sort of sense of perspective as to what’s going on back home, as to the economic crisis. It was like 2008 and 2009, that happened when I was over there and I felt some of it, because of course it affected the Chicago Tribune, and my father lost his company, and people I knew lost their jobs. But I remember coming back to Chicago at one point and I’d see all of the boarded up businesses, and yet I was over there thinking like, “This is the most important thing in the world.” I just didn’t have a sense of perspective. 

What was your driving mentality when working in Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially as someone essentially trying to make a living off of selling these stories? 

You just get into a story and all you want to do is tell the next story and tell the next story. I never viewed it as commodifying tragedy or death or trying to get on the front page. I always felt that anything I saw, like a suicide bombing, I wanted to find the way I could tell it that would make readers back [in Chicago] see folks over there as their next door neighbor. I remember the stories I did on Sgt. 1st Class Merideth Howard, who I think was in her 50s and I think the oldest woman to die in combat at the time I wrote this story. She was operating and working as a gunner. To me I just felt like, “What state are we in where that’s happening?” Not that you shouldn’t be able to do that, as a woman I believe you should be able to do anything. But still, I really felt it showed the pull on our troops, that having two fronts for so long really caused a lot of, obviously, stress on our troops. And folks would come through time after time—I would do these embeds, and I think a lot of journalists when they’re doing embeds were more interested in the bang-bang, going out and being able to do something that showed more action. And with me, I don’t know what it was about me, but the troops would always end up talking to me, and it was always guys, about their problems back home, or their stress, or that they had so many tours and what that did to a family. And I felt those were really good stories, so I would tell those stories. I always felt like I was just trying to bring everybody back together like, “Oh, I totally know that person,” whether they’re American soldier or an Afghan woman, and make people feel something. 

In both texts, having a dark sense of humor proves to be a crucial attribute for you and others. Did that at all make the possible feeling of always being in some sort of danger more bearable? 

I don’t think you look at yourself as always being in danger. I never did and I don’t think a lot of people did. There’s that whole line, which I use in the book as sort of a description, but they turned it into dialogue in the movie, where I was saying, “We’re all like frogs in boiling water, man. We’re just like, ‘Hey frog, how you doing?’” It’s that you have no sense that it’s dangerous. And then I always had friends like Sean who were going out and getting their finger blown off or whatever. He had the most ridiculous cast [laughs]. 

It’s funny to hear you laugh about that, because that injury read to me as a bit shocking in the book. 

It wasn’t even all the way blown off. Sean keeps saying, “I want to write a book,” and he’s going to write a book about being kidnapped by the Taliban. And he’s like, "Only, it's going to be called ‘Hotel Taliban,' and it’s going to be funny."


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