There’s a scene in Tina Fey’s new film, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, where her character, the war-reporter Kim Barker, pauses briefly before stepping over a severed hand after a car bomb explodes in Kabul. The camera dwells on the image just long enough for it to seep into the subconscious; a memory to be dealt with later, perhaps, when Kim gets back home and goes into counselling.
Before the blood has congealed on the streets, we see Kim downing whisky shots at a party and then jumping into bed with a louche, morally dubious war photographer played by Martin Freeman. Cut to Tina Fey sweeping down over Kandahar in a helicopter, and then coming under fire with US soldiers. Jacked up on adrenalin, she laughs and cheers when the soldiers shoot back, even though she’s supposed to be a liberal journalist. ‘Oorah, Miss Barker,’ yells the Marine Colonel, played by Billy Bob Thornton with pitch-perfect gallows humour.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not only a brilliant black comedy about the war in Afghanistan — a kind of M*A*S*H for the post-9/11 generation. It’s also one of the most searing and honest portrayals of war journalists you’ll ever see on screen. And I should know, because the Martin Freeman character is based on me.
The film is an adaptation of The Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker’s memoir of her time as a war reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2004 to 2009. I was based in Afghanistan in 2008, making a documentary about the Taleban for Channel 4, and Kim and I had a brief affair. Which is why the editor of Spectator Life thought it would be a good idea to fly me to New York to interview Tina Fey. ‘She’s playing a character who had an affair with the character based on you,’ he pointed out. ‘There might be some chemistry there.’
Elizabeth Stamatina ‘Tina’ Fey has won eight Emmy Awards and was the head writer and star performer on the legendary sketch show Saturday Night Live from 1999 to 2006. She is probably best known for creating 30 Rock, the critically acclaimed sitcom that ran on NBC from 2006 to 2013, but she also wrote and starred in the 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls — an out-and-out masterpiece — and has appeared in half a dozen other films, including Date Night, Admission and Sisters. Call it a hunch, but I didn’t think this 45-year-old, happily married mother-of-two would take kindly to me coming on to her during an interview on the basis of some nonexistent fictional chemistry. Then again…
‘The Martin Freeman character is based on me,’ I announced at a New York screening of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot for American broadcasters that I managed to get into. It was a veritable Who’s Who of the profession. I was talking to Brian Ross, ABC’s chief investigative correspondent, but was hoping some of the other people in attendance would overhear: Norah O’Donnell, the co-anchor of CBS This Morning, Diane Sawyer, the ex-anchor of ABC World News, and Barbara Walters, the 86-year-old doyenne of American broadcast journalism. I think it’s fair to say that by the time the lights went down, everyone in the screening theatre was aware that the male lead was actually based on that guy with the glasses sitting in the middle of row G.
In retrospect, it would have been sensible to watch the movie first before advertising this fact.
Before I could even begin to bask in the attention, Martin Freeman suddenly popped up on screen in a Chinese brothel in Kabul. As I shrank into my seat, I literally found myself mouthing out loud the implied name of the film: ‘What The Fuck?’
A few rows in front, I could see Barbara Walters recoil as Martin Freeman starts belting out karaoke songs on the screen, flanked by two Chinese prostitutes. Woah! I don’t remember that happening! I was about to whisper a loud denial to my immediate neighbours, when Freeman drags Tina Fey into a bathroom, lifts her onto a sink and… oh my! That’s not how Woodward and Bernstein were portrayed in All the President’s Men. The eminently respectable Brian Ross looked over at me quizzically, as if to say, ‘Is that really you?’
Well, yes. But if memory serves, my wife had already left me by then. At least I think she had. I started wracking my brain, trying to remember the exact date the divorce papers came through, knowing that the film was due to be released in the UK in April. Immediately after the screening, I ducked out of the cinema and called Kim Barker.
‘Hey Sean. When are you going to interview me for this piece you’re writing?’
‘Sorry, my editor’s only interested in the Hollywood version of you.’
‘Oh, OK. Did you like the movie?’
‘Yeah, it was really intense, much more powerful than I imagined. I got an adrenalin rush just watching it. But that’s not the point, Kim. Why have you got me going to a Chinese brothel?’
‘Sean! You took me to the brothel!’
‘Yeah. It’s in my book. You did read it, right?’
To be honest, I haven’t. At least, I hadn’t before writing this piece. It was hailed by the New York Times as ‘both a harrowing and hilarious’ memoir about her five-year stint at the Chicago Tribune’s bureau chief in South Asia, but some memories are best forgotten. I don’t mean my fling with Kim, which was great, obviously, but what happened immediately afterwards, which is an experience I’d prefer to forget.
The book includes a section about my time in captivity after I was kidnapped and held hostage by the Taleban — not one of the highpoints of my life. I had breakfast with Kim on the morning I crossed the border from Afghanistan into the tribal areas of Pakistan in 2008. I told her about my plan to film inside secret Taleban and al-Qaeda training camps and also shared some of my concerns with her about the trip. Did she think I was being stupid? I was craving reassurance from a fellow war correspondent that I wasn’t putting my life in danger — at least, no more than we usually do.
‘I’ve got a really bad feeling about this one,’ I said. ‘I think it might be quite dangerous.’
Kim stared at me in open-mouthed disbelief.
I laughed — and then crossed the border anyway. Within days, I’d been kidnapped by the Taleban. For the next three months, as I lay in my dark cell waiting to be decapitated, I still managed a smile every time I recalled the incredulous tone in Kim’s voice: ‘Ya think?’
A dark sense of humour was something that kept us all going out in the field — war correspondents, soldiers, aid workers and our small army of Afghan helpers. Which is why this film works so well. At a screening for war correspondents in New York last month, most of the reporters in the audience howled with laughter, but a few burst into tears and some even had post-traumatic stress disorder flashbacks. Nothing captures the pure insanity of war like a Catch 22-style comedy, but there’s something about this movie (and Kim’s book) that makes it stand out: it casts a woman’s eye over what is usually considered a male milieu and in doing so reveals something new. And Tina Fey is brilliant in the role. She captures that mixture of vulnerability, empathy and all-out ballsy toughness that I’ve encountered so often in my female colleagues.
Some of the entertainment journalists at the press-junket in New York found the idea of a female war correspondent unusual, as though war reporting is still the preserve of men. But the best foreign correspondents of my generation in Afghanistan — Kate Clark and Lyse Doucet of the BBC, Catherine Philps of the Times, Carlotta Gall and Elizabeth Rubin of the New York Times, and of course Kim Barker — were all women.
‘Have you interviewed her yet? ‘
I’d hung up on Kim outside the screening theatre and called my editor back in London.
‘Er, no, not yet.’
‘How about Freeman? Have you managed to get a couple of quotes from him? You know, how portraying a thieving, hairy dwarf who lives in a hole in the ground was ideal preparation for playing an English foreign correspondent?’
‘What? No. He’s not here. His people say he’s in Puerto Rico. They’re trying to set up a phone call. But I don’t think there’s a lot of point in talking to him. They’ve completely fictionalised the character. It’s not me at all. There’s this scene in a Chinese whorehouse —’
‘OK, get back in there and talk to Tina Fey. Remember, she’s the story. You’re supposed to be interviewing her.’
‘OK, OK, but she’s an A-list movie star. I can’t just waltz in and demand an interview. Anyway, this place is crawling with black-clad ninja PR women from Paramount Pictures. Trust me. They’re a lot tougher than the Taleban.’
Difficult though it is to believe, it’s actually a lot harder getting an interview with a movie star than a mujahideen commander. After my ‘in-depth interview’ with one of the film’s directors — it’s the work of a pair of film-makers who always co-direct — turned into an all-night drinking session at an underground nightclub, I was considered a bit suspect by the Paramount publicity department. The next morning, they wouldn’t allow me to ask Tina Fey any questions at the press junket. Instead, they stuck me in a green room and fed me bacon-wrapped donuts and canapés all day. (Note to the US Department of Defense: if you had let the promotional team at Paramount Pictures plan the war in Afghanistan instead of the Pentagon, you might have won.)
But I did get to watch Tina Fey fend off a barrage of inane questions from the entertainment media-corps on the TV monitors. After ten hours she looked exhausted by the constant thud of blanks fired in her direction. I was finally introduced to her — by Kim, not the Paramount ninjas — at the end of the onslaught, but I think it would have been against the Geneva Convention to ask a human being another question at that point.
My last chance to interview Tina — at least, I thought it was my last chance — was after the screening at a private party for the cast and crew. Admittedly, I wasn’t actually invited and Kim didn’t think she’d be allowed in if she turned up with me, but I decided to chance it. After all, I’d managed to get into Fallujah, Ramadi and Kandahar. How difficult could it be to get in to the Museum of Modern Art in New York?
A Hollywood party is like any other hostile environment. What I needed to do was draw on my extensive SERE training — survival, evasion, resistance and escape — and head for the frontline. I spotted Steve Martin, the comedy legend, and attached myself to his entourage as they lined up in front of the velvet rope. In the party-crasher’s handbook, this is known as ‘slipstreaming’ and it worked a treat. I cruised past security and right into the party. Oorah!
To my amazement, that’s all it took. Once you’re in, you’re in. And it turns out that Hollywood insiders love real people, especially once they’ve had their lives portrayed by a Hollywood actor. That somehow makes your life even more real. Oh my Gawd. So you’re the real Martin Freeman? I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that question, but I went along with it all night.
‘Were you really rescued by the US Marines and Kim Barker after you were kidnapped?’
‘Yes. No. Sort of.’
And then, all of a sudden, there she was — the real Tina Fey, the funniest woman in America. I was genuinely gobsmacked and couldn’t think of anything to say. ‘Sean, why don’t you come and meet Lorne Michaels?’ she said.
And with that Tina Fey slipped her arm under mine and took me over to meet the creator of Saturday Night Live and the producer of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. ‘Ah, so you’re the real Martin character,’ he said. ‘Take a seat.’
I congratulated him on having the faith to make a dark comedy about the war in Afghanistan. Some people might question whether it’s right to laugh about something so obviously serious, but war lends itself better to comedy than tragedy. Like doctors in surgery, or patients on cancer wards, the closer you get to the frontline, the more the stuff that would scare the bejesus out of you under normal circumstances makes you laugh. You share wisecracks with your colleagues, right up until someone gets their legs blown off, at which point you break down and sob uncontrollably.
Dark humour is what gets you through those interminable days. All the journalists shown whooping it up in the movie like delinquent frat-boys and girls would have lost close friends in real life, as I have. It’s not bad taste showing reporters in a war zone having a good time. It’s true to life. And it’s obvious, even to the most puritanical scold, that we are all hurting on the inside.
Lorne Michaels relayed how Tina first came to him with her idea for the movie.
‘She told me how she really wanted to make a war movie and had come across this great book called The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker,’ he said. ‘My reaction was: oh, that’s just perfect, because I know that, right now, Paramount is desperate to make a big-budget Taleban comedy.’
By rights, that should have been the end of it. But some crazy ideas make a twisted kind of sense, at least to someone as experienced as Lorne Michaels, and he agreed to produce the movie.
I can’t remember what he said next, because that’s when the actor Tom Hanks sat down and introduced himself to me. I immediately ignored everyone else at the table — including Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels — and got into a deeply enthralling conversation with Tom Hanks about my three-month ordeal at the hands of the Taleban. One of the benefits of being kidnapped is that people can’t walk away when you start telling them about it at parties, no matter how important they are. I buttonholed Hanks for at least 45 minutes.
‘So, have you interviewed Tina Fey yet?’
This was my editor again. I’d ducked out of the party to tell him about Tom Hanks.
‘Tom Hanks? Is he in the movie?’
‘Well, no. But he is Tom Hanks.’
‘Did he say anything you can use?’
‘Not really. To be honest, I did most of the talking.’
‘For God’s sake Sean, go and get some quotes from Tina Fey. She’s the assignment, remember?’
I ran back into the party and went straight up to Tina. ‘Thanks for introducing me to Tom,’ I said.
‘I didn’t introduce you,’ she laughed. ‘I introduced you to Lorne Michaels and then you turned your back on us and started talking to Tom Hanks.’
Wow. I was having a bit of a meta-experience. The real Tina Fey was now taking the piss out of me in exactly the same way that her character and my real friend Kim Barker does. Maybe she’d read what Martin Freeman has to say about me in the film’s screening notes: ‘A guy who doesn’t do a lot of editing before he speaks.’ That’s almost uncanny, given that he’s never met me.
But I didn’t have time to dwell on my character flaws. The party was about to end and Tina was about to leave.
‘But Kim,’ I spluttered. ‘Sorry, I mean Tina. What can I say? It was the real Tom Hanks.’ She gave me a pitying look and then swept out of the party.
I have to admit, it wasn’t my greatest interview. The one I did in Afghanistan with a suicide bomber went much better. I actually managed to ask him more than one question before he blew himself up.
I called Kim. ‘I may need to interview you after all,’ I said. ‘I didn’t really get to ask Tina any questions. I was too busy talking to Tom Hanks.’
‘You’ll get another chance at the premiere, dumbo.’
‘Oh really? When’s that? Can you take me?’
‘Do you still wanna interview me?’
‘Yes, yes, of course. Just get me into that party!’
A few days later I took up my position on the red carpet at the New York premiere of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Tina Fey emerged from her limo in an explosion of flashlights. I was about to greet her — ‘Hi Tina, I was wondering if you knew where Tom Hanks is?’ — when I caught sight of Martin Freeman. WTF was he doing here? Wasn’t he supposed to be in Puerto Rico? Luckily, one of the directors stepped up and introduced us. ‘Martin, meet the real you.’
‘Sean!’ Martin exclaimed, pumping my hand. ‘I’m really sorry I didn’t reply to those questions you emailed me. They were bang on the money. But I was in Puerto Rico and had to get on a plane.’
‘Well, most of the questions were about me,’ I quipped, beaming from ear to ear like a groupie.
As with Tina Fey and Tom Hanks, I went from being a veteran reporter to a gibbering fan in a nanosecond. All I could think was, ‘Oh my God! It’s Martin Freeman!’ I wanted to tell him how pleased I was that he was playing me, but I couldn’t get the words out. I’m glad I never had a moment like that in Afghanistan. You don’t want to get frozen in the headlights when bullets are flying around.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked Martin later when I’d finally recovered my composure. ‘Your publicist said you were still in Puerto Rico?’ He recoiled slightly at that, as if under attack. The question had come out much more aggressively than I’d intended. ‘Er, I’m here for the premiere,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you after the film.’
At the after-party, I’d actually prepared some questions to ask Martin, but then Tina Fey came up to me, put her arm under mine, and introduced me to Billy Bob Thornton. I then had a great conversation with Billy Bob in which I told him all about my kidnap ordeal, pausing only to refill my glass of champagne.
About 15 minutes in to this monologue, it occurred to me that I’d now spent almost a week with some of the hardest people in Hollywood to meet and had barely managed to ask one of them a single coherent question. I decided to make one more pass at Martin Freeman.
‘So Martin, how much research did you do?’
I imagined he must have trawled through a catalogue of my back articles and watched all my documentaries.
‘Well, to be honest with you, I didn’t really do much research. I just read the script and learned my lines.’
We carried on talking and I did ask a few more questions, but the following morning I couldn’t find my reporter’s notepad so I’m not sure what he said. Although I did find a text from one of the film’s directors, inviting me to an after-after-party. I think that’s how I ended up in Manhattan’s meat-packing district until 5 a.m.
I also remember giving Tina Fey a kiss on the cheek and thanking her for introducing me to half of Hollywood. As I walked out into the night to hail a cab, I consoled myself with the thought that things could have ended up a lot worse in my life. I could have had my head chopped off back in that cell. Instead, I got to meet Tina Fey, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Hanks, and my friend Kim Barker’s book got turned into a great movie. And we all had a good laugh. That’s one way of standing up to terrorism. Oorah!
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, in cinemas from 22 April.
Buy Kim Barker’s The Taliban Shuffle here