Journalists loved the movie because, rarely for Hollywood, it cast them as heroes rather than shady, two-timing, craven alcoholics or, in the case of female reporters, scheming narcissists – Rita Skeeter from or Kate Mara’s character from , sleeping with her source – without compromising their essential shabbiness.
On the heels of Rachel McAdams winning an Oscar nomination for her role in Spotlight comes another film featuring the female journalist as hero, this one based on Kim Barker’s memoir of being a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in . (It’s a sign of the times that the Tribune no longer has any foreign staff - not a single correspondent - and Barker has long since moved on, first to ProPublica, then to the New York Times).
was first published in 2011, and is terrific, funny, insightful and races along. It eschews the reportorial tone for something more informal and hilarious without sacrificing any of its authority. Barker, who was south-east Asia bureau chief for the paper for five years, describes Afghanistan as “a fragile and corrupt country stuck somewhere between the seventh century and Vegas”; Hamid Karzai as “whiny and conflicted, a combination of Woody Allen, Chicken Little and Jimmy Carter”; and foreign visitors to the country as squandering local goodwill by, for instance, throwing fancy dress parties themed around “tarts and talibs”. She also shrewdly documents what happened in Afghanistan when the US shifted focus to Iraq, and offers a corrective to the earnestness and propaganda of .
How much of this will make it through to the movie, in which plays Barker, remains to be seen. Fey is brilliant, but she has a dicey track record with movies, and on the evidence of the trailer she is playing it mainly for laughs – Liz Lemon in a war zone. The film, titled Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, has a romance written into it. It co-stars Billy Bob Thornton as a US army officer and, in what looks like a disastrous piece of casting, Alfred Molina as an Afghan official.
Barker has said she is OK with the changes and likes the film, although before seeing it was silently pleading, as many more of us will: “Please don’t let this be set in Afghanistan.”
I thought Spotlight was overrated. It’s a good movie, but it’s not good a movie. It goes on too long and occasionally feels a little made-for-TV. I preferred another of this year’s big Oscar films, Spielberg’s , in spite of the small but loud contingent of people on the internet who think Tom Hanks can’t act. I’m not one of them, but even if I were, he has that combination of extreme fame and buffed affability that makes one simply grateful he isn’t a Scientologist.
The best thing about Bridge of Spies was as the Russian spy. You don’t see him on the big screen very often, and he is almost embarrassingly good, espousing a form of ultra-realism that requires an extraordinary level of artfulness to carry off. Any more realistic and he would appear, in a bad way, not to be acting at all. During the course of , Rylance talked about the Bridge of Spies’ script – and specifically, how the Coen brothers edited it.
“It was,” he said, “like going to a great masseur or a chiropractor and they just kind of aligned a few things. Did a few clicks, and then just massaged the blood into all the parts of it and then kind of exfoliated a few bits that you realised weren’t actually necessary.” It’s the kind of nerdy talk that, to a writer, makes an actor as heroic as it gets.