Talk about strange bedfellows, you don’t get too much stranger than Hollywood and the cause of beleaguered daily journalism in a digital era.
But if you somehow doubted it after Hollywood gave the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday to “Spotlight,” the formidable cinematic tale of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into priestly pedophilia, we’ve now got Tina Fey in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” which is actively devoted to the courage, stubbornness and worthiness of embedded American war correspondents in the least popular precincts of the Middle East.
Considering the survival problems of journalism – especially print journalism – in a digital era, that’s one heck of an active and idealistic partner to be standing on the reporting profession’s side.
“Whiskey” is very loosely based on a book Middle Eastern war correspondent Kim Barker, who was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune when she did the work that turned into her 2011 book “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” She is now a metro desk investigative reporter for the New York Times.
She talked a little on the phone about the notable oddity of having Fey play her in the movies in a film that espouses the cause of combat journalism in an era where Hollywood seems to have decreed that journalism matters.
[Read Jeff Simon's review of "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"]
“The [Times] team that I work with – the Metro Investigative Team – went and saw ‘Spotlight’ together because we actually work similarly. We’re all very collegial and supportive of each other. The idea of having print journalists as heroes is awesome.
“That’s [‘Spotlight’] what we do. We’re very diligent about going over records. It requires going over databases and spreadsheets and doing shoe-leather reporting and knocking on doors and trying to get people to talk to you who didn’t necessarily want to talk to you. Jesus, ‘Spotlight’ is an amazing story.”
Few would be quite so enthralled with “Whiskey,” but its virtues are large and many and various.
“This is a different movie. This is a movie about TV correspondents in a foreign country covering a forgotten war. It does a great job showing why that war was forgotten and how difficult it is to get any news about Afghanistan out.” Not least about this movie’s virtues is the fact that it may be the only film ever to come into being because of a book review in the New York Times. In the Times Book Review last Sunday, Barker confirmed that Fey first learned about her book when Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani mentioned that her character in the book resembled someone who could be played by Fey.
So is “Whiskey” the first movie to have such an origin? She laughed and said “as an investigative reporter, I’ll have to do the research on that. Certainly, it’s the only one I know of ... Tina said at a news conference we did – where she called herself a ‘huge egomaniac’ – that’s how she found out about the book, because of Michiko’s review. And so she read the book. She was the one who pushed this entire project.”
Barker’s sudden immersion in the world of the relentlessly glamorizing and fantasizing showbiz press has been nothing if not sobering. “I don’t want to get too sucked up in ‘Hollywood World.’ I’m a print reporter. I’m a trained observer. I just want to watch everything through that filter. It’s the kind of experience that would be easy to get sucked up into but that’s not my job.”
She admits, in fact, that a Fey movie having its origins in a book by her “is probably surprising to a lot of people in the Times building ... The book is something I wrote a long time ago. It’s not like I talked a lot about the movie. I didn’t have a lot of involvement in the script or adapting it. You’re always watching it hoping they’re kind to the story and respectful of it. ... They did a good job.”
What she is eager to tell the world though is how many differences there are in the Tina Fey Hollywood version of her story and the real thing.
For movie purposes, her name has been changed to Kim Baker and she’s been made a cable TV reporter, with a beautiful “frenemy” played by Margot Robbie. And, to amp up the drama, her mettle as a war correspondent is proven by a movie moment where she rushes out of the safety of her Humvee during a firefight to capture the action with her Camcorder.
“No, no, no, no. … I was told to stay put ... But I get why they did that for dramatic reasons ... I’m not the sort of person who would run toward an explosion. I’m the sort of person who would run and hide,” she laughed.
In fact, she said, an oddity of war reporting is that when she dealt with soldiers, they would admire the courage correspondents showed immersing themselves in Afghan and Pakistani civilian life. “They would be very respectful. They felt you were crazy going around outside the confines of a Humvee. Whereas I felt more nervous being in an embed than going around in a Toyota Corolla with a head scarf or a burqa on with your translator. That way you could blend in. Nobody knew who you were or that you were working for an American newspaper.”
When she came back to New York, she said she wasn’t “much fun to be around. I was pretty insufferable.” She talked about Afghanistan constantly and “for the first nine months I was anticipating I was going to go back to Afghanistan. I left all of my stuff over there in a trunk.”
“I think writing the book got a lot of that stuff out. After writing the book, I decided that it would be a tougher choice to stay in New York. (Laughs)
“I’ve always made decisions in my career to do the thing that scares me or seems riskier to do. That’s why I went over there in the first place – to challenge myself, to see if I could actually get over this. It was probably about two years after being back that I thought ‘OK, this is normal.’ ”
Whether she ever thinks it’s normal to be played by Tina Fey in a movie is anybody’s guess.
My money’s against it.