During a phone conversation with Kim Barker, I asked if it bothered her that the new movie based on her life, in which Tina Fey plays a version of her, had recently been described to me as “Eat, Pray, Love but with more war.”
“Oh, that’s such a fucking insult, right?” Barker replied. Her memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, provided most of the source material for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, out today — so Barker had every right to be insulted by a reductive summary of the movie. Because while Barker didn’t have much to do with the actual script, she did have one demand with regards to the finished product.
“I was like, ‘Look, if this movie ends with my character getting married with a baby, I will punch this movie.’ I get so tired of that narrative,” she said. “I know that it is a narrative that’s tried and true. Shutterbabe had that narrative; Eat, Pray, Love had that narrative. Go overseas for adventure; find that what you really need is a man. Nothing against Elizabeth Gilbert, but there are different narratives for women and there can be different narratives for women. This is a different narrative.”
But, with no disrespect to Barker, there’s a sense in which Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t stray too far from the narrative path laid out by Eat, Pray, Love and its ilk. Consider the surface similarities: A 40-something American woman goes to an exotic land to escape her humdrum life and meh boyfriend; in so doing, she learns a lot about herself. What’s remarkable, though, is the nature of its heroine’s ultimate triumph: Her prize isn’t the satisfaction of a man — it’s the satisfaction of work. And, despite Barker’s reservations about the comparison, it’s her own very real drive that makes the movie she inspired interesting.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m going to be an inspiration,” she told me. “But if I am faced with two choices, I always pick the one that scares me a little bit more. The one that I feel is a little bit riskier, that’s going to challenge me more. It’s very much why I decided to go to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the first place.”
Barker was a Chicago Tribune reporter who covered Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2003 to 2006. Listening to her describe her time there (as I got to do, while she was searching for a dress for the premiere — “There’s Afghanistan and there’s the dressing room at Bloomingdale’s,” she joked), you definitely wouldn’t call it a journey toward touchy-feely selfhood. It was ambition — sometimes desperation — that kept her reporting so doggedly even when her bureau wanted to shut her down. “I always want the next great story,” she said.
The Times book review of her memoir mentioned that Barker depicted herself “as a sort of Tina Fey character,” and two weeks after that, Tina Fey optioned the book. In the movie, Kim Barker loses an R and becomes Kim Baker, who’s a version of the character Tina Fey tends to play — a moderately attractive woman (honestly, could we have one movie where we’re not pretending Tina Fey doesn’t look good?) with a mildly depressive boyfriend she could marry and a job at a network news station that isn’t the worst, but requires the sort of cubicle life where she’s eating homemade tuna salad out of Tupperware and sighing a lot. If you thought there could be no more depressing signifier of a life unlived than “sad desk salad,” try “sad desk tuna.”
You might expect this setup to keep Fey in Cathy-comics mode for at least two-thirds of a movie, but the real Kim Barker’s history propels Kim Baker into action. We get just a shot of Fey in her bathrobe drinking white wine before she makes the immediate decision to accept the job offered by network heads and dives head-first into the frenetic, dangerous, unfamiliar world of war reporting.
Once on the ground, we don’t see her bumbling through trying to “figure it out” and “prove her worth.” Baker can fire a gun and report a story; she’s competent and determined and wildly ambitious, much like the real-life Barker. (Though, Barker says, Fey’s fictional bravery is somewhat more extreme than her own: “I run away from explosions,” she said. “I tend to listen if the military tells me to do something or my translator tells me to do something.”)
You can guess the broad outlines of what happens in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; the movie plays it safe in that respect — Fey steps on some proverbial land mines, finds herself, loses herself, finds herself again. And, in keeping with that familiar narrative, we have to deal with some of the pitfalls of the traditional white-lady-finds-herself-in-a-foreign-country tale. There’s that necessary Oprah-approved “Aha” moment, when an external locus of control offers the sad woman a chance for reinvention; in this case, a male network exec who’s gathering up “unmarried, childless personnel” and asking them to go. (Reality was a bit different: When Barker decided she wanted to go to Afghanistan, she marched into her boss’s office and declared herself a perfect candidate.) There are no Afghan actors in lead roles (for example, the crucial part of Barker/Baker’s fixer Fahim Ahmadzai is played by … Girls’ Christopher Abbott). Also, some of the relations between Baker and Afghan women are precariously balanced on the line between okay and possibly offensive. There’s a scene so reminiscent of Sex and the City 2, I almost cringed out of my seat expecting someone to flash a Louboutin. (In the end, the scene does hold greater resonance — but the fix veered into “white lady savior” territory.) And yes, of course she gets laid.
But just when you expect the standard bildungsroman climax, the movie swerves into a story about the perils of ambition, rather than some romantic drama. It makes the payoff — a burgeoning career — so much sweeter.