Kim Barker has a fine life — boring, but fine. She works for a newspaper. She has a boyfriend that she might, kind of like. She’s in her 30’s, but she’s as lost as a teenager. Then 9/11 happens. Suddenly, she has found new meaning. She’s going to Afghanistan to cover the war on terror for The Chicago Tribune.
Kim Barker’s memoir of her years covering the war in Afghanistan — or as she calls it, The Forgotten War — is as real as it gets. It’s full of bombings, political corruption, shootings and journalist kidnappings. But hers is also the story of “Kabul High” as she likes to call it — partying, heavy drinking and drugs, competition amongst reporters, adrenaline rushes, hookups and backstabbing. She tells the stories we don’t expect to be happening between reporters and their sources and reporters amongst themselves. But it does happen. It’s the rush of it all that sucks Kim in to the Middle East and keeps her from returning home to the U.S. for more than six years.
In Barker’s memoir, she tells her story in vignettes — an interview with a warlord here, a failed vacation with her boyfriend there, but there’s no plot, per se. It’s more of a diary of her experiences abroad and a depiction of her inability to leave what’s become her new home.
The movie, however, changes that, and that may be for the best. Tina Fey as Barker is a perfect fit — a little bit of hot mess, but still focused on her work and a good woman overall. The movie adds a little drama to the story — making the several journalist kidnappings at the end of the memoir the main plot of the film, when it happens to a boyfriend of Barker’s who never actually existed in real life. In fact, the movie combines several of the men in Barker’s life into one hunky journalist boyfriend. It also creates a fellow female journalist with whom Barker has a competitive frenemy relationship. The movie also makes Barker a TV journalist. All of this does nothing, but add plot and pizzazz.
While typically, I like a movie to stay true to a book — especially if that book is a memoir, in this case, I thought the movie did a good job in adding what the book lacked. The memoir — while interesting — is dense and gives a lot of descriptive detail about Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Some sections are hard to get through, especially as I sometimes waited for a juicy plot twist. A movie without a focused story wouldn’t have been good as a movie. So in this case, the movie is more of an interpretation of the memoir, with juicy plot twists. The book’s juicy plot twist was the overall journey and how it changed Barker’s life.