Shock and Awe: Iraq War Newspaper Drama Meanders and Fizzles

By Liam Lacey

Rating: C

The new Rob Reiner film, Shock and Awe begins with a quote from Bill Moyers:  “There is no more important struggle for American democracy than insuring a free independent and diverse media.”

In a movie about newspapers, I would have thought “ensure” was a better word than “insure” (the Chicago Manual Style and the AP Style Book support the distinction) but that’s far from the biggest problem with Shock and Awe, a movie which delivers neither of the words promised in the title.

At best, Reiner’s movie reminds us that American “free” press, rather than serving democracy, credulously amplified U.S. government lies in the period between the September 11, 2001 attacks and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Director and star Rob Reiner.

Director and star Rob Reiner.

His film focuses on an exception: the four-man team at the Washington Bureau of the Knight Ridder syndicated newspaper chain, who wrote stories that were consistently skeptical of the administrations’ justifications for the invasions: That Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, was working on nukes, and was linked to Al Quaeda and the 9/11 attacks. 

But Reiner’s attempt to create Spotlight-like docudrama of newsroom courage and stoke fresh outrage about government lies is undermined by clunky old-fashioned filmmaking and Joey Harstone’s exposition-clotted script. The movie’s paint-the-numbers approach is signalled in the film’s first scene when Adam (Luke Tennie), a young black veteran in a wheelchair, is seen testifying at a 2006 congressional hearing, throws out his notes and begins listing numbers relating to the war and his own spinal injury.

We cut to Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson, brash and sassy) apparently a prisoner in a war zone — but it’s soon revealed that he’s only taking combat reporting training, which gets interrupted when his cellphone rings. It’s the morning of 9/11 and he’s being called into the office. Soon we see those familiar television images of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Landay and his younger colleague, Warren Strobel (James Marsden) are assigned by their avuncular editor John Walcott (played by Reiner) to pump their political and intelligence sources for a follow-up.  Almost immediately, they hear rumours that there’s a plan to invade Iraq and when they’re joined by well-sourced veteran reporter, Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones), they discover the administration is doctoring intelligence to support its cause.

From there on, Shock and Awe unfolds with an almost self-parodying sequence of familiar “newspaper movie” moments: excitable phone calls, gathering around the breaking news on the television, inspiring speeches and meetings with salty-talking sources in bars. What’s missing is any sense of the 18-month stretch between the 9/11 attacks and the 2003 invasion, though  television footage of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condaleeza Rice, and Colin Powell reminds us of the administration’s campaign of deception. We also see the odd Judith Miller headline from the New York Times demonstrating the mainstream press’s capitulation to their spin. 

To stoke up the drama, we see some of the Knight Ridder team’s frustration at making their stories count. Papers in the Knight Ridder chain, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, refuse to carry the stories for fear of alienating patriotic readers. That allows Reiner to offer some excoriating speeches about how harshly history will look back on them.

At the same time, the filmmakers don’t have confidence that this replay of relatively recent history is enough to hold viewers’ attention.  Occasionally, we check back in with the story of Adam, the young soldier, leading up to his recruitment and deployment, though his storyline is almost insultingly underdeveloped. A goofy side plot fills in a love story for Marsden’s character with his neighbour, Lisa (Jessica Biel), whose main job is to provide an account of the Shia-Sunni Muslim conflict since the seventh century, just to show she’s researched her first date. 

Other women’s roles are similarly functional:  Milla Jovovich plays Landay’s Yugoslavian wife, Vlatka, who offers dire, unfounded warnings about the family becoming a government target, while Walcott’s wife Nancy (Kate Butler) serves as her husband’s political sounding board over dinner dishes.

Reiner has been a spirited critic of the current U.S. administration and Shock and Awe is replete with 20/20 hindsight: Characters express scorn toward the New York Times for re-printing government press releases and Fox host Shawn Hannity for impersonating a journalist. Neither are the Dems excused: During the October 2002 pro-invasion senate vote, we hear the names: “Biden, yes, Clinton, yes” just in case you forgot, which, of course, you didn’t.

Whether things are worse under Donald Trump or just more brazen is a debatable point but this much is sure: When we see a newsroom electrified by the scoop that “Donald Rumsfeld is lying!” you know it’s really old news.

Shock and Awe. Directed by Rob Reiner. Written by Joey Hartsone. Starring Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Rob Reiner, Milla Jovovich, Jessica Biel, Tommy Lee Jones, and Luke Tennie. Opens July 27 in Toronto (at Canada Square and Imagine Cinemas, Carlton Cinema), Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria.