The most dramatic and damning story about the heedless run-up to the invasion of Iraq has to be the ways a humiliated and enraged America blundered into Iraq, led by a Bush administration hell-bent on getting a war and an experiment in “nation building” out of 9/11.
Anything to change the subject from the arrogance, inattention and rank incompetence they displayed in letting 9/11 happen on “their watch.”
Another promising angle to take would be exploring how a cowed and compliant TV news and print press corps — most infamously the New York Times — followed Mr. “Mission Accomplished” and the nation over that cliff.
Rob Reiner and his “LBJ” screenwriter Joey Hartstone opted to zero in on the less dramatically promising, or at least more difficult to wring a compelling film from. “Shock and Awe” is about the dogged reporters “getting it right,” the lone news operation, in a sea of Bush cheerleaders, to talk truth to power.
The filmmakers went for “All the President’s Men” or “Spotlight,” films of simmering, beneath the surface drama, brilliant performances and gravitas — both underpinned by a long, attention-demanding running time. What Reiner and Hartstone managed is closer to “Lions for Lambs” or “Kill the Messenger,” a movie that like “LBJ,” is more interesting than compelling, more superficial than definitive.
“Shock and Awe” is a meandering but brisk, almost flippant stroll through the 9/11 to Invasion of Iraq era as seen through the eyes of the late, lamented Knight-Ridder News Service, a Washington D.C. newspaper wire service whose journalists were the only ones to say, point blank, that Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and assorted other Bush officials were lying to America.
Theirs was the only analysis to roll its eyes at the whopper that the secular dictator Saddam Hussein and rich boy religious fanatic Osama bin Laden were in cahoots.
Reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, and veteran war correspondent, author (“We Were Soldiers”) and onetime Bush administration insider Joe Galloway were the only ones to track down contrary voices, real experts who laughed at Cheney’s delusional declarations that “We’ll be greeted as liberators.”
They were the solitary journalists to look at this the way the hawkish but pragmatic Calloway did. Played by Tommy Lee Jones, his guiding ethos was, “When the government f—s up, the soldiers pay the price.”
Reiner’s film tracks the Strobel (James Marsden) and Landay (Woody Harrelson) through the months of legwork, “unnamed government sources” and those willing to go on the record — “The Vice President is lying.” They make $20 bets on “Who can get the best quote” that will make a story zing, make its point and stick with the reader.
The threats are familiar to anybody who’s ever seen a newspaper picture. “Tell your boss we’re going with the story whether he comments or not!”
The facts laid-out have been verified by history. “The decision is made (to invade Iraq). Intelligence (briefings) is made to fit it.”
The reporters are profane, skeptical to the point of cynicism, and the outspoken liberal Reiner must relish all the dirty names these people call assorted Bushies. It’s what reporters do, curse people who lie to them. Their “bias” is inherently towards the truth.
And Reiner, who plays the battling and embattled bureau chief, John Walcott, takes acting pleasure getting on his reporters, tearing into the biggest papers of his own chain –Knight-Ridder, later swallowed by McClatchy Newspapers, both of them swallowed by Tribune — for not carrying the stories their own news service was accurately reporting. “Patriotism” cowed one and all, we’re reminded.
A running gag? Explaining to sources and potential girlfriends (Jessica Biel plays Strobel’s fetching accountant/neighbor) what Knight-Ridder is. “Knight RIDER…Is that a magazine?”
They were attacked from all sides (shades of “Kill the Messenger”), threatened by right wing readers, just for being out of step. You can see why Reiner took on Walcott for himself. Walcott is the Ben Bradlee figure here; testy, defiant, circling the wagons as cable TV news took the “anything that helps Israel” New York Times to heart and never followed up on Knight-Ridder’s skeptical, factual stories.
“We are Knight-Ridder,” he sermonizes. “We don’t write for people who send other people’s kids off to war. We write for people whose kids are sent to war!”
If he’d confined his story to just the journalism, just the pressure cooker within that bureau, with the celebrated Galloway leaving government to write columns questioning the “chicken hawks” and “National Guard deferments” and their glib treatment of what was sure to be a grave, blood-stained endeavor, Reiner would have stayed on solid ground.
Alan J. Pakula (“All the President’s Men”) didn’t show up strident, paranoid anti-war wives (Milla Jovovich) or awed-at-what-you-do girlfriends (Biel). Reiner does.
“The Post” took us to Vietnam for a taste of the consequences of governments lying their young men into combat, so Reiner tries that, too, tracking a patriotic young man who enlists, is paralyzed by an IED and testifies before Congress to open the film.
The performances are more solid than inspiring. We don’t get under anybody’s skin in a 90 minute movie that packs in all these story threads and all this exposition (a big chunk of it handled by Biel’s girlfriend who “did my homework” speech, recounting the history of Islam, the Middle East and Iraq in a minute and a half or so).
Jones is the stand-out in the cast, giving the chest-thumping Bronze Star-winning combat reporter that beyond-reproach veneer of a man hardened by battle who just happens to be a reporter. I met Galloway as (depicted in the film) his Vietnam memoir, “We Were Soldiers,” was being turned into a Mel Gibson film, complete with flag-waving AND the reminder that soldiers are always trapped implementing government policy, even ill-conceived ones.
The real Galloway is who Shakespeare had in mind when he scribbled that “St. Crispin’s Day” speech, because if anybody could make you “hold their manhoods cheap” when talking about war, it was Galloway (and Tommy Lee Jones).
Full disclosure, at one time or other, I worked for every newspaper chain (and a later version of this wire service) mentioned here, and the first person I ever heard recite that print journalist’s credo, that our duty is to “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted,” was named Tony Ridder.
Maybe I wanted this to be better, or maybe I’m cutting Reiner & Co. a little slack. But if nothing else, the timely “Shock and Awe” is a blunt reminder of how important a skeptical press is in countering a popular government — or even an unpopular one — that is hellbent on lying, misleading, on doing something for nefarious reasons, and has all of cable news, talk radio and a truth-averse internet backing it up.
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references.
Cast: Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Milla Jovovich, Jessica Biel, Rob Reiner, Richard Schiff, Tommy Lee Jones
Credits:Directed by Rob Reiner, script by Joey Hartstone. A Voltage/Castle Rock release.
Running time: 1:31