The reporting team at Knight Ridder Newspapers has been called “the only ones who got it right” about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction that sparked the 2003 Iraq war. Based on a true story, Rob Reiner’s Shock and Awe gives much-deserved credit to their far-sighted (if generally unheeded) news coverage, but the message tends to melt into a paint-by-numbers screenplay that pushes too many genre buttons to be thoroughly exciting. All the President’s Men is the most obvious reference and, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Alan J. Pakula must be blushing.
The movie marks Reiner’s directorial return to the political-ethical turf of his recent LBJ, and further back, The American President and A Few Good Men; it has all the ingredients, though none of the spices, for a stirring journalism thriller. In the day and age of fake news, it feels like something of a missed opportunity to speak topically about the essential importance of serious journalism in a democracy and holding government accountable for telling the truth. Despite a stellar cast that includes Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Tommy Lee Jones and Reiner himself, the independently financed film is still shopping for a U.S. distributor.
Right on, but highly derivative.
So far it has made two festival bows in Zurich and Dubai, where it was received with enthusiasm by international audiences, who may well prove to be its biggest target.
Certainly, the story of how, following the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush’s White House diverted public opinion from the culpable Osama bin Laden to the extraneous Saddam Hussein is a gripping one. The administration’s objective was to have an excuse to go to war with Iraq, and its methodology, as one insider explains, was the reverse of normal procedure: First they made the decision, then searched for intelligence to support it.
As government figures like Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice build the case for Saddam’s fabled WMDs, reporters Jonathan Landay (Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (Marsden) hear a very different story from their numerous inside sources, who are not named in the film, presumably to continue to protect their identities. They reveal to the incredulous Knight Ridder duo the administration’s nefarious plan to shift the war to Iraq, while everyone knows bin Laden is in hiding somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Unfortunately, their accurate syndicated stories and multiple scoops are ignored by many of the Knight Ridder papers (The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s editor bluntly says the tone of their stories doesn’t “fit in”), while The New York Times and The Washington Post throw up a dust cloud of misinformation fed to them by the White House.
Being almost the only ones in America singing outside the chorus, Landay and Strobel are eaten by doubt and let an important story get away about a secret group of war planners within the Bush administration. An unwavering beacon of courage, instead, is their editor John Walcott (Reiner in a luminous role), who eventually hires the veteran war correspondent Joe Galloway (Jones) for support. Like so many things in the film, Jones’ character is intriguingly introduced and his weathered, been-there face promises excitement, but he soon gets left behind.
Had the filmmakers shown as much confidence as Walcott in the ability of true political crime to hold the public’s attention, Shock and Awe would have been a much more cohesive work. Joey Hartstone, who wrote the far more succinct LBJ screenplay for Reiner, goes off in various directions with characters and plot points that are left dangling. Fair enough that Landay has an outspoken wife from a Balkan country (Milla Jovovich) on whom he bounces off a few ideas, but why make her lose her cool over the danger her husband is putting their family in through his investigation when absolutely nothing comes of the threat?
Also puzzling is the dramatic purpose of Jessica Biel as Strobel’s charming next-door neighbor Lisa, who makes the normally competent Marsden turn into an awkward teenage boy in cute rom-com scenes that belong in a different Rob Reiner movie. Their courtship interrupts the thriller’s momentum over the entire length of the film. Surely Lisa’s raison d’etre can’t all be in their first-date scene, when she is made to mouth a shameless amount of historical background to the Iraq war to jog the audience’s memory.
The story is framed by another familiar character that makes the heart sink, Adam (Luke Tennie), a young black soldier summoned in front of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to offer testimony about how his spinal cord was severed in an explosion just three hours after he landed in Iraq. Setting aside his prepared speech, Adam gives the Senate a long list of the number of casualties, etc. — again, obviously for the audience’s benefit.
Holding down the fort, Harrelson and Marsden recall not just the Robert Redford-Dustin Hoffman duo hot on the trail of Watergate, but innumerable screen detective buddies who bolster each other’s flagging spirits with irreverent comments and nicknames for pols and deep throats.
In general, the dialogue is fast and amusing, particularly the risqué lines that wittily illuminate the profession of hard-nosed reporting. Harrelson, finally free of his Lyndon Johnson makeup, is funny even when serious and is at his expressive best reacting against irritating people, whether it be a snooty combat trainer or Saddam’s weaselly U.S.-chosen successor Ahmed Chalabi. Marsden, mired in his affair with Lisa, is a less flamboyant character and stands out less.
Production companies: Castle Rock Entertainment, Acacia Filmed Entertainment, Savvy Media Holdings
Cast: Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Rob Reiner, Milla Jovovich, Jessica Biel, Tommy Lee Jones, Luke Tennie
Director: Rob Reiner
Screenwriter: Joey Hartstone
Producers: Elizabeth A. Bell, Matthew George, Michele Reiner, Rob Reiner
Director of photography: Barry Markowitz
Production designer: Christopher R. DeMuri
Costume designer: Dan Moore
Editor: Bob Joyce
Music: Jeff Beal
Casting: Jeremy Gordon, Jane Jenkins
Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Gala Screenings)
Sales: Voltage Pictures