There’s very little of the shock and awe Rob Reiner hoped to inspire in his docudrama Shock and Awe, the latest in a growing group of movies extolling the virtues of hard-hitting journalism as a check on governmental propaganda. In an era in which the President tweets #fakenews on a daily basis, and an entire TV “news” network helps him turn it into policy, it’s disappointing to have Reiner, a fierce liberal activist and pundit, direct such a middling film. Worse still because the pieces to make a great film are there, minus the passion and raw directorial talent o see it through.
Similar to Reiner’s recent foray into political drama with LBJ, the fire is missing and we’re left wondering what happened to the impassioned director of A Few Good Men and The American President? With Shock and Awe he’s simply content to follow in the well-worn shoes of All the President’s Men in paint-by-numbers style. It begins in cliché fashion (and never really stops being as such) as a wheelchair-bound Iraq War vet addresses the senatorial Veterans Affairs committee, only to theatrically put away his notes so that he can talk from the heart. His speech, however, is full of stats and figures about the true cost of a war built on lies and propaganda. The screenplay by Joey Hartstone never misses an opportunity to cram in as much data as possible in place of actual human emotion.
That said, there is still a powerful story here if you can look past the workmanlike direction. Woody Harrelson and James Marsden swoop in to the rescue as dogged Knight Ridder reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel. They are among the very few who stand against the Bush Administration’s public campaign to turn responsibility for 9/11 away from Osama Bin Laden and instead to Saddam Hussein. As Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powel and other senior Bush officials jin up the case for war with a bogus claim of WMD, too many in the press just went along with the Administration’s talking points. With the enthusiastic support of their boss John Walcott (Reiner, in one of his best acting roles) and veteran war journalist Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones) in their corner, Landay and Strobel hit the phones, put shoe leather to pavement, and do the hard work in debunking what is quickly becoming the popular narrative. But despite all of their accurate reporting, and even getting one source to boldly state “Donald Rumsfeld is lying”, Knight Ridder was criticized and saw many papers refuse to print their syndicated pieces in favor of disgraced Bush cheerleader Judith Miller of the New York Times. It’s worth noting Miller and the Times both apologized later for their shoddy reporting.
The firebrand pundit Reiner is on TV never translates into his work as a filmmaker, where he is painfully muted. Reiner would probably tell you he’s a storyteller first, and I get that, but storytelling without conviction is basically reading Wikipedia, and that’s too often what this movie feels like. Some confusing choices are made to flesh out the lives of the Knight Ridder journos, and they both involve significant others played by Milla Jojovich and Jessica Biel. The latter gets mixed up in a dorky ill-suited rom-com subplot that finds Strobel meeting her first as his neighbor, then on an awkward blind date. What this adds to the narrative is never really clear, other than a scene where she gets to witness Strobel’s mounting frustration over news coverage. And for what reason do we care that Landay has a Balkan wife who is as up on politics as he is? At one point she does express some justifiable fear over the death threats he is receiving, but then that plot thread is dropped never to be picked up. What was the purpose? The effect is to cloud Reiner’s message and lessen the impact of the film’s few striking moments.
Maybe this was Reiner’s way of making Shock and Awe more palatable, because certainly the American audience has shown no appetite for revisiting this subject and that’s not likely to change. Perhaps Reiner will find a more willing audience for it internationally, while there is growing discontent with our country’s place on the world stage.