Why a book about reporting in Afghanistan looks like a hit on the big screen

The World

When it was published in 2011, investigative reporter Kim Barker had no idea how big her book “The Taliban Shuffle” would become.

As of December, it had sold fewer than 11,000 copies. Within a month, trailers for a film based on Barker’s book received nearly 5 million YouTube views.

Playing Barker in the movie adaptation, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” is comedian Tina Fey.

In a March 2011 review, Michiko Kakutani, chief book critic at the New York Times, depicted Barker “as a sort of Tina Fey character who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline of war.” What was remarkable, Kakutani wrote, was that Barker's "account of her experiences covering Afghanistan and Pakistan that manages to be hilarious and harrowing, witty and illuminating, all at the same time."

Reaction to that Tina Fey reference was swift, Barker says. “Within two weeks, Tina read the book and pushed Paramount to option the book on her behalf," she says.

Barker’s book uses gallows humor in chronicling her time reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Chicago Tribune between 2004 and 2009.

“I was simply using myself as a vehicle to tell the story of intervention in Afghanistan in the five years that I was over there,” says Barker. “It’s a memoir and I felt like I wanted to tell it in a darkly comic, absurd way."

“It’s about a reporter that has no experience covering conflict, or covering anything overseas, finding herself in Afghanistan and falling in love with covering the story there and the country. And as she’s doing so journalism is undergoing crisis, there’s war fatigue in the States and nobody really wants to hear what’s going on over there,” says Barker.

As excited as she is about the film, Barker admits she was nervous about how accurately the film would portray her story.

"It’s like in any of these things. When Hollywood gets a hold of something, they can do what they want. My biggest fear was probably 'Anchorman' in Afghanistan. And it’s not that, which makes me very happy,” says Barker.

Though not taking the outrageous "Anchorman" approach, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” condenses Barker's story and did take creative liberties. The film's most significant change?  Depicting Barker and her colleagues as broadcast journalists, while they largely worked in print. Also, in the book, she travels between two countries, but the film focuses on Afghanistan. Still, Barker says she’s pretty happy with how the film has turned out.

“I think they did a pretty good job keeping it as authentic as Hollywood has ever kept a movie about Afghanistan, for sure,” says Barker.

“I think the trailer makes it look like it’s — haha, like laugh-out-loud funny all the time, and certainly there are very funny parts to it. But there’s also just this seriousness to it and a bit of a darkness and grimness to it, which I was really happy about because it is war,” says Barker.

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” premieres on Friday.