I first saw the trailer of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot about a month ago which stars Tina Fey as a 40-something female who finds herself in a rut and wants to completely shake up her life, which she does by taking up a journalism assignment in Afghanistan.
The film is directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa and has a great ensemble cast in addition to Tina Fey: Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina and Billy Bob Thornton. Check out the trailer:
It turns out that the film was based on a best-selling memoir by Kim Barker called The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days In Afghanistan And Pakistan that’s got great reviews on Amazon. The book is a dark comedic take on her time in South Asia, which was published by Doubleday in 2011. When I got the opportunity to chat with Kim Barker, I jumped at the chance.
A bit of background about the author:
Barker was the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009, based in New Delhi and Islamabad. Barker has covered natural disasters such as the tsunami in Asia and the earthquake in Kashmir, as well as tracked manmade disasters — the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the corruption in Afghanistan, and the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Before going overseas, Barker worked at The Seattle Times and the Spokane Spokesman-Review. After coming back in 2009, she was the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she freelanced for Foreign Affairs, Reader’s Digest and The Atlantic. In 2010, she joined ProPublica, where she wrote about campaign finance and the fallout of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Barker, who grew up in Montana and Wyoming, now lives in Brooklyn and works as a New York Times metro reporter specializing in investigative reporting and narrative writing.
My review of the movie
This is the biggest role I’ve seen of Tina Fey in a feature film. She plays the protagonist based on Kim Barker, though they changed her name slightly to Kim Baker and she’s a tv reporter instead of a print journalist. The fact that she’s unmarried and childless makes her the ideal candidate for the job as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, and she had wanted an escape of sort out of her mundane life. Well, she’s certainly got the adventure of her life as soon as she arrives in Kabul.
It’s a fish-out-of water dark comedy that’s perfect for Tina Fey‘s brand of snark. Even the title, military alphabet speak for WTF, should tell you what you’re in for. Some reviews say it’s a drama marketed as a comedy but I think it leans more towards a dark comedy with some dramatic moments. I was laughing throughout and found Kim’s journey quite engaging. At times there are scenes that seem way over the top that made me think Kim’s a reckless reporter, but I’m aware that it’s definitely Hollywood’s way of sensationalizing stuff for dramatic/comedic purposes. People who are really curious about what really happen to Kim should read her book [more on that in my interview below]
The supporting cast are wonderful and they all have a great rapport with Fey. Margot Robbie is one of the most interesting actresses working today, this is the third movie I saw her in so far and I’m a fan. She and Martin Freeman as Kim’s fellow reporters, as well as Billy Bob Thornton as a US general, are all wonderful in their roles and have some memorable moments in the film. The casting of British Alfred Molina and American Christopher Abbott in prominent Afghan roles, as the attorney general and Kim’s fixer/translator respectively, is a curious one. I mean they’re both great in the roles but in light of the hot button issue of diversity, I kept wondering why they didn’t look for actors of South Asian (or even Middle Eastern) background. In any case, I thought Abbott as Fahim was especially memorable in an understated performance. His relationship with Kim is the most developed in the movie and the scene towards the end actually made me tear up a bit.
Robert Carlock‘s script is definitely perfect for Fey’s screen vehicle, the fact that he’s worked with her on 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The dialog are sharp and pretty funny, even the romance between Fey’s and Martin Freeman’s character (speaking with an amusing Scottish accent) is hilarious with some genuinely sweet moments. Unlike the book, there’s no shuffling between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the movie, they pretty much stay in Kabul the entire time. But there is a shuffle between drama and comedy here that at times feels uneven, but I’d say for the most part the movie plays out as a comedy.
Overall I enjoyed this one, it’s definitely one of the most entertaining female-driven comedies out there. If you’re a Tina Fey fan, I highly recommend it. It’s also no surprise to see SNL creator Lorne Michaels as one of the producers.
After the movie ended, there’s a Q&A with Kim, moderated by The LOFT’s education director. I didn’t have the early part on tape but Kim explained that she didn’t really have any say about the script once she sold the rights of her book. She was consulted by the film’s screenwriter Robert Carlock, but knowing that they were going to fictionalize a lot of what happened in her book, she wasn’t exactly given the rights to make any modifications to it. Check out her thoughts about her life as a journalist and some tidbits about the film.
From the Q&A:
Q: When you’re overseas reporting, with all the risk involved, what is the x factor, the synergetic factor that make you still want to keep doing what you’re doing considering you might lose a limb or even your life?
A: As a journalist, when you go into a story, you start to go into a spiral and you just need to go into the next part of the story. When I was in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it felt like you’re covering the most important story in the world. Once you start seeing it unfold, I couldn’t see myself leaving, I want to see how the story unfold and I care so much about the people there. And you also stop seeing yourself as somebody who’s in danger. It’s like we’re all frogs in boiling water, we had no idea the water is boiling. So your friend would do this thing, they go to the middle of Kandahar to talk to the Taliban. Well that seems crazy but that means I can invite the Taliban here to this hotel and talk to them. And you just start thinking of yourself, that you’ve been here for so long, your friends’ been here for so long, and nothing really bad’s happened to anybody, so we can keep going. But then bad things started happening, in terms of the kidnappings.
Looking at what happen since then in the Arab Springs, like Libya and Syria now, it seems that Afghanistan is just child’s play for us. If you were to say to me, ‘hey I have a ticket for you to go to Syria,’ I’d say, ‘You’re out of your f****ing mind, no way I’d go to Syria.’ You start to get the sense… I mean I really felt like that with Faruk (Fahim in the film who was her Afghan fixer) y’know, when he got married and have kids, I didn’t want to have him on me, y’know, because in a lot of this situation, when a Western journalist and the driver/fixer or whatever got kidnapped or whatever happened to them. When I was over there, it’s always the driver or fixer who got killed or got into trouble more than the foreigner and I just couldn’t deal with that anymore. So that kind of moderated the risk I’m willing to take over there.
Q: Where there any scenes in the movie involving Tina Fey that actually happened in real life? How much was fictionalized?
A: That’s a good question. Um, read the book [audience laughed] I mean you’ll learn, I mean when I saw the movie, I was like ‘hey you cut out a lot of the funny stuff from the book.’ Like when I go to interview the war lord, that is true. But they cut a lot of the parts in the movie. I was like, ‘you just lost part of the jokes there as it got really funny with that war lord.’ They also made the war lord to be a much bigger deal than he actually was. But the part when I was shooting guns with the attorney general, that’s actually true. That’s one where people thought, ‘that can’t possible be true,’ but it was. Although I never would’ve fired an AK-47 like that. I’m from Montana, I know about y’know, saving ammunition. I’d point and I aim, I’d hit the target that’s been set up. Those things are true. I did live in a place called the ‘fun house’ that’s not quite as grand as in the movie. There’s no address in Kabul, so every house has a different name and ours was called the ‘fun house.’
As far as the military, the story in the end involving the soldier that was very accurate. But he only lost one leg instead of two legs. I didn’t actually go visit him in his ranch, but I called him on the phone. He said a lot of the same things as in the movie, but he’s much nicer in real life. The speech actually came from this guy Doug, he’s the drug czar for the US. I was sort of torn up about [the soldier losing his leg] and I didn’t hear about it until I got back. I was blaming myself, basically the entire unit got moved to a more dangerous area because of the story I did with them, because they all seemed so puffed up and kept saying, ‘no we’re not locked an loaded.’So when I was writing the book, I remembered talking to those soldiers and I said to Doug, ‘Oh no, I’m responsible for this.’ And he’d say ‘What about the Taliban?’
Q: The storyline about Ian being kidnapped, how close to the real story was that and are you still in touch with him?
A: Iain’s real name is Sean Langan [a British war photographer]. He was kidnapped by the Taliban for three months. He was a good friend of mine, no he IS a good friend of mine, I didn’t want to talk about him in the past tense [laughter]. He met with me before he went to meet with the Taliban in Pakistan. He said ‘I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do this.’ And I said, ‘You’re a f***ing idiot, you’re gonna get kidnapped.’ And he kept changing the subject, ‘how about if I do it this way or that’ and I just said ‘you’re a f***ing idiot, you’re gonna get kidnapped.’ So when he went there he immediately got kidnapped. It was awful, I’ve been in that situation before where someone close to you got kidnapped. I mean, it turned your world upside down because you couldn’t do anything but think about it and fixate on it.
He eventually got out three months later. There’s a ransom paid for him, I didn’t really have anything to do with the marines going in to rescue him. And he wasn’t as dumb as taking the bus out of Kabul to go to Pakistan but he was pretty stupid. We’re still in touch and we’re good friends and he’s going to the premiere. The premiere is March 1 and Faruk is also trying to come to the premiere but he’s sort of blocked by the US embassy. He’s in Canada now but y’know, he has a Muslim name so his papers are still in further review. I’m hoping he can make it to the premiere.
Q: Once the film comes out, people might assume that what happens in the movie actually took place in real life? How do you reconcile that given that most of the movie is fictionalized?
A: I answered the same way like I did in the Q&A. If people ask me if something is accurate, then I’ll say ‘well this one is accurate, this one isn’t.’ When you sold your book to Hollywood, Hollywood will do whatever it’s gonna do. There are plenty of examples where the book says one thing and the movie is totally different. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City turned into Green Zone [a movie by Paul Greengrass starring Matt Damon] which has no resemblance to the original book. But it was optioned for a movie. I think in Hollywood, ‘based on’ means ok it’s the source material but we’ll do the Hollywood thing with it.
I mean, I’m a TV reporter in the movie and I’m a print reporter in real life. People ask me, ‘how do you feel about that?’ and I’m always rational about it. I don’t think it’ll be very interesting to watch me do my job writing a story as I’m sitting in front of my computer for several hours. Y’know what I mean? It’s far more interesting to watch a TV journalist do her job because you have to be there to capture the story, you have to get the shots and everything so people understand what the character’s doing. I’m ok with that.
Look, they do their own version of the story and the real story is in the book. I’m hoping that people who watch the movie would go, ‘could life really be that weird there?’ and then go buy the book and hopefully learn something about Pakistan and Afghanistan. Because the book is, even though it’s more of a dark comedy, I want people to know more about Pakistan and Afghanistan and by the end of it, they’ll learn about those two countries. That’s my goal. So if the movie will drive people to the book I think that’s great. I think that the narrative arc of the movie is like the narrative arc of my book, I feel like it’s *truthie* There’s something in every scene, if it didn’t happen to me, it happened to somebody I know. And it shows the absurdity of the bubble we lived in over there and I think the movie captured that pretty accurately.
Tina Fey’s character is basically a fictional character based on me. They changed all the names because if they had kept all the names that’s in the book, they’d have to be truthful to the book. So this way they’d just fictionalize things, but there are still grains of truth to them. As I watched the movie I’d be like, ‘oh yeah that happened, I did say that’ even if they happened in a different context. I think they did a good job with it. I think if they wanted to portray everything as accurately as in the book, it’d have been really long and narratively it’s not something that people would want to sit through. [spoiler alert] I didn’t get together with Sean [Iain in the film] like in the movie. But I love that they also didn’t have me end up with him in the end. I love that, because that’s exactly like my narrative arc. I decided to come home because it was time for me to
Q: What did you think about the title of the film, which is basically WTF? Did you help to come up with that?
A: No, I didn’t have anything to do with that. But Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is military speak, so it’s a nod to the military. You could certainly say ‘what the f***’ about Afghanistan. And it’s got the same dance thing that I did with the Taliban Shuffle, y’know Tango Foxtrot.
Q: It seems to me that the WTF title has that snarky-ness people associate with Tina Fey and is that right that you share a similar sense of humor?
A: Yeah we do. My book has that snarky-ness as well. There’s a dance back and forth between the two borders. I think that’s another reason they didn’t want to use the title of my book is because they keep the movie just in Afghanistan. There’s not enough room to go to Pakistan in the movie. But in the book, the shuffle refers to the going back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan, that’s what the Taliban was doing between the two countries and that’s what we’re doing as journalists. There’s no Pakistan in the movie. I talked to [screenwriter] Robert Carlock and he said, ‘we’re going to fictionalize this’ and I said ‘do what you guys do.’ I mean they’re the ones who knew how to make a movie. If I were to sit there and write a movie script, I won’t be able to do it, it just wouldn’t get anywhere.
Q: Since you know about all the real life people in the story, what did you think about the actors portraying the part?
[I mentioned to Kim that I was surprised that they had American actor Christopher Abbott, who was in the acclaimed indie drama James White, cast as the Afghan fixer Fahim]
A: I didn’t have anything to do with the casting so I can’t answer any question about casting. But I thought [Christopher] did a great job, I mean he looked Afghan to me. Farouk [the real life counterpart of Fahim] loved the trailer and he came off really well in the movie. Fahim came across as the only adult in the room and Farouk was truly the only adult in the room. The thing about Faruk is he has a great sense of humor, whilst Fahim was a very serious man. I suppose we need a straight man there in a comedy movie.
The attorney general had white hear and a bushy beard, not dark hair like in the movie. But I thought Alfred Molina did a great job and the dancing scene, there’s supposedly a real video of the attorney general dancing on youtube. I wrote about it in the book. I thought he did the Afghan dance very well in the movie, let’s see how my Afghan friends think of him.
Q: Despite all the fictionalized accounts that they did, did the movie captured the tone of your book the way you envisioned it?
A: I always go back to what Stephen Colbert said, y’know, truthie. I think it got the narrative arc and I felt like it captured the relationships that are most important to me, which to me is the one I had with Farouk. I mean obviously all the friendships I had were all important but the one I had with Farouk is the most important one in the book and it’s that way in the movie. It’s the most developed relationship in the movie, y’know, when he leaves her when she was going down. He’s like ‘I don’t want to be a part of this.’ I have to say I teared up a bit when he showed up at the airport. Farouk was the first person I got in touch with after I saw the movie, and Sean was the second.
Thank you ALLIED Marketing and Kim Barker for the interview opportunity!
What did you think of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?