Kim Barker was sitting at a restaurant table with a handful of old Chicago Tribune colleagues, making fun of her eyelashes.
Nobody would have noticed but she pointed them out – fake eyelashes.
The former Tribune war correspondent who wrote “The Taliban Shuffle,” a darkly comic memoir about living by her wits during the Afghan war, was in town on a movie-studio junket to promote the book’s film adaptation, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” Wherever she went during her two-day stay, she was first made camera-ready by a stylist.
So goes the surrealism of this moment in Barker’s life – arriving in her old city, shepherded by a team of publicists to talk to people in her own profession about the movie that fictionalizes her life and stars Tina Fey.
“This is just temporary. This is one of those 15-minute things,” she said, as if trying to convince herself that the statement was true.
Barker kept coming back to the fake eyelashes. She was trying to illustrate the strange experience of straddling a line between the real Kim Barker and the fictional Kim Baker that Fey portrays in the movie.
“If people want to mix me up with Tina Fey and her character, that’s going to happen. But I know who I am and my friends know who I am,” she said. “And they know I’m kind of bemused by this whole idea. I’m going around, I’ve got fake eyelashes and, look at me, man, I’ve got TV anchorman hair. I’m coiffed. Look at the makeup on my face. Have you ever seen me with this much makeup on my face?”
The answer is no, and this is probably the place to disclose that Barker is my friend. Most of our interaction during her recent visit to Chicago was spent in a group of old Tribune friends eating, drinking wine and celebrating her alleged “15 minutes.” So this piece should not be construed as an objective comment on her book or the movie.
But in a series of conversations during her two days in town she held forth on her experiences covering Afghanistan and Pakistan, and on the strange path toward having an actress regarded as one of the funniest comedians in Hollywood portray her on the screen.
In the movie, which opens March 4, Fey plays a mid-career TV producer stuck in professional and personal ruts, viewing the chance to cover the war as an opportunity to “blow up her life.”
That’s not really how it happened. As is the case with several details in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” Barker’s story has been condensed and altered to dramatize the experience of being a woman with no war-reporting experience cast into the chaos of Afghanistan.
Despite the fictionalizing of her reality, Barker feels like the story on the screen captures the essential truth of her experience. The experiences of women journalists covering conflict in a Taliban-influenced Islamic culture are central to the themes of the movie. And gender issues were on Barker’s mind when the real story began.
“I remember after 9/11 happened, (former Tribune reporter) Kirsten Scharnberg and I went to some Italian restaurant that had white butcher paper on the table and we mapped out how many women were getting sent out and how many men were getting sent out (to cover the aftermath of the terrorist attacks),” she said. “As a journalist you don’t really think that much about the risk or of being terrified. It was just, ‘I want to be one of the people who get to see it.’”
In the early assignments after 9/11, mostly male reporters were being dispatched to New York, Washington and abroad. But when a group of older male reporters pulled Barker aside and told her then-editor Ann Marie Lipinski wanted more women on the front lines, she knew a moment of truth had come.
“And I kind of felt like I had gotten myself into a situation. … I sort of boxed myself into a position of OK, now you really have to go.”
She introduced herself to the paper’s foreign editor and stated her intentions. To her surprise, he immediately said, “Get ready to go to Pakistan.”
She called home to tell her family and “my parents were like, why would they send you to Pakistan? You haven’t even been to Europe.”
Nonetheless, Barker started making trips to South Asia in early 2002 and was the Tribune’s correspondent there from 2004 to 2009. Officially, she was based in Delhi, but she rarely saw her apartment there. Most of her time was spent traveling in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Kabul, she stayed in a series of ramshackle hotels and guesthouses. Her depiction of them in the book leaves readers with the impression of shabby lodgings that were part newsroom, part psychiatric ward, mostly frat house.
Her learning curve was steep.
“My news judgment was crap in the very beginning,” she said. Her boss in Chicago “would call me and ask, ‘Why don’t you have that story? Because that’s actually news.’ … I was working with these fixers in Pakistan. I swear, I had this one guy, who, all he wanted to do was come and eat lunch and breakfast … and invite all of his friends.”
Foreign journalists are heavily dependent on fixers, locals who speak the language and can set up interviews, interpret and guide a correspondent on working safely in a conflict zone. Barker’s relationship with her longtime fixer in Afghanistan was one aspect of her story that the filmmakers did not alter.
She remains close to her Afghan fixer, Farouq Samim, and said she would not have written the book in the style she did if he had not escaped Afghanistan with his family. He relocated to Canada in September 2009, and Barker is planning for him to come to New York for the March 1 premiere of the movie.
One fundamental change the filmmakers did make has been the source of much grief directed at Barker from her reporter friends. Screenwriter Robert Carlock made “Kim Baker” and all of the other journalists in the story into television reporters instead of print reporters. In fact, the “Kabul High” environment she describes in the book was populated almost exclusively by print reporters, she said.
“It was mostly print reporters who were based there. … The heavy lifting really is done by the print reporters, and you don’t see any print reporters in the movie,” she acknowledged. “Of course, I would love my profession to be up there. I’d love it to be like ‘Spotlight.’ “
The filmmakers told her that TV reporters shooting video made for better drama than print reporters taking notes and typing stories. While the depiction of rumpled, khaki-clad Boston Globe reporters in “Spotlight” didn’t seem to undermine the drama in that best picture winner, Barker said it would be hypocritical for her to complain about it.
“When you sell the rights to your book, you accept what happens with that. And overall, if you’re going to ask me if I’m upset with the movie or happy with the movie, I’m pleasantly surprised by the movie,” she said. “I was terrified and thought what if it turned out to be like ‘Anchorman.’ That would not do the story justice. It would be humiliating.”
She thinks carefully about her humorous treatment of a deadly serious subject.
“Some people complain about the book; they say it’s not that funny. Other people say, ‘Oh, she shouldn’t have made it be funny because it’s war.’ And I kind of feel like, if I’m getting those two reactions, I might have hit the right boundaries.”
Barker started thinking about writing “The Taliban Shuffle” sometime around 2006 in conversations with other correspondents.
“We always joked about how somebody should write a funny book. An absurd book … going from this weird sort of social life to going out to cover conflict. And trying to tell it in a dark comedy, ‘M*A*S*H’-like vein,” she said. “It was just something we always talked about, and at a certain point I was like, oh yeah, I’m going to do that. And another friend said I’m going to, too. It was just something that you said you were going to do but you probably weren’t.”
But then reality set in 2007 when a troubled Tribune company was bought by real estate billionaire Sam Zell, who immediately voiced disdain for costly foreign reporting. Barker recalled that Zell publicly derided a feature story she wrote because a reporter from the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times wrote the same story. Zell eventually installed new editors who redesigned the paper, leading to shorter stories and more local news coverage. Things soured quickly.
“I was doing everything I could to hold on to my job at the point,” she said. “I had to write a story about Chicago pizza being delivered to the Illinois National Guard for the Super Bowl. That sounds like a really sweet story – like a story you should do. But I spent a lot of time with those guys … and some of them were forced to get up at 4 in the morning to go eat pizza because the Chicago Tribune was there. … They were annoyed and I was annoyed and then we write this feel-good story about the war and how great is it that we got pizza to the front lines in Afghanistan.”
In 2009, as the Tribune was doing away with most for its foreign-reporting staff, her editors replaced her with another reporter and summoned her back to Chicago. She wanted to stay in Afghanistan and considered taking a job outside of journalism. She was in a quandary. She did not want to come back to the Tribune’s metro desk and she did not want to leave journalism. In the end, she did neither.
Barker quit the Tribune, hung around Kabul briefly and then won a fellowship that gave her time to write. She set about working on the book that would become “The Taliban Shuffle.”
“I just loved writing so much, and I still love writing so much,” said Barker, who is now an investigative reporter for The New York Times. “I knew, for myself, if I didn’t take a chance and roll the dice and try to write a book that I would regret that for the rest of my life.”