Shock and Awe
(USA, 89 min.)
Dir. Rob Reiner, Writ. Joey Hartstone
Starring: Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Rob Reiner, Tommy Lee Jones, Jessica Biel, Milla Jovovich, Luke Tennie
Rob Reiner really should have worn a caftan during his rousing “yay, journalism!” moment in Shock and Awe. The director and star of Shock and Awe has a big golden muumuu to fill coming to theatres on the heels of The Post. Reiner simply proves that when it comes to acting, he’s no Meryl Streep and when it comes to directing, he’s no Steven Spielberg.
Reiner stepped in to play the Washington Bureau Chief of the now-defunct news consortium Night Ridder when Alec Baldwin dropped out at the last minute. While he clearly knew the lines and fleshes out a perfectly affable screen presence, one can only imagine what Baldwin might have done with the monologue in which John Walcott reminds his staff that they’re not shills of The New York Times. They seek the hard truth, damn it, and Walcott encourages his team to carry on investigating the Bush administration’s plan to use 9/11 as a route to invade Iraq. If only Reiner had told himself to inject an exclamation mark somewhere in the speech—or, for that matter, the film—it might have sold the show.
This quick and serviceable dive into the story shows how Night Ridder reporters Jonathan Landy (Woody Harrelson), Warren Strobel (James Marsden), Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones at his cantankerous best), and Walcott held strong to their convictions when other news outlets basically did cut and paste jobs of bad intelligence spoon fed by the White House. This aspect of the film is undeniably relevant, particularly as the shifting nature of media gives an imbalance of power to publicists and politicos over publishers, and the film aims to be a stirring reminder about how satisfying it can be to pursue an independent story.
Shock and Awe is a perfectly fine, if safe and intermittently ham-fisted, take on the importance of a free and independent press. Journalism is as much about immediacy as it is about quality, and it’s hard to deny that Shock and Awe was beaten to the punch by films like The Post that got the story out first and told it better.
This well-intentioned dramatization of the Bush administration’s exploitation of 9/11 follows The Post’s relevant essay on the importance of the press in an era of “fake news.” But there’s more to the story of The Post, and to Spotlight’s powerful dramatization of the Boston Globe’s exposé on the Catholic Church’s systemic enabling of child abuse, than simply a mere pat on the back for good reporters. What’s missing here is the connection between writers and their subjects, the dynamics of power and capital that influence mainstream media, and the overall thrill of digging into dirt. These things are all referred to in Shock and Awe, but it’s akin to the difference between enjoying the full story and scanning the headline. (TL;DR)
For a film about the power of words, though, the fault ironically rests in the writing. (And Reiner’s overall blandness.) The script by Joey Hartstone plays as if someone went back in a time machine and flagged all the important questions to the people living history. Particularly as Strobel and Landy question sources à la All the President’s Men or debate the desire to invade Iraq with friends and family, they lay it on a little too think while articulating how much America will get it wrong.
There are admittedly some very fine observations within Shock and Awe that will resonate. For one, it’s refreshing to see a film remind audiences of the misery of the Bush years. While he no longer holds the title for Worst President in History, a few too many people recall Bush with rose coloured glasses these days. Shock and Awe strips Bush of any favour he may gain as the years pass. One can watch the film and see how Bush was far worse and dangerous a president than Donald Trump is because he was actually a shrewd politician as his party inspired groupthink by capturing the verve of post-9/11 nationalism. Clips of the all too familiar buzz line about the smoking gun being a mushroom cloud say more than anything that transpires in Reiner’s newsroom dramatization. The fakest news is that in which the government plays a hand and writes the copy.
On has to give the Night Ridder team credit for seeking the truth amidst the mushroom cloud’s smokescreen. Nowadays, it’s easy to spot a lie when it arrives unintelligibly in ALL CAPS at four in the morning.
Shock and Awe opens in theatres July 27.