Storywise, “Shock and Awe” could have been a contender; it could have been great. The problem is, it comes too close on the heels of “Spotlight” and “The Post,” two crackling newsroom dramas that, long after 1976’s “All the President’s Men” had set the standard, upped the ante. We’re used to this kind of thing winning Oscars by now.
Those movies shocked and awed us with the ability of hard-nosed, truthful journalism to expose evil. “Shock and Awe,” by comparison, is an uninspired, paint-by-numbers version of that kind of story that will leave you wishing director Rob Reiner would stick to rom-coms. The story definitely needed telling; it just needed to be well-told.
Place: newsroom of the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder newspapers, a news publisher whose papers are read widely by U.S. military personnel.
Time: shortly post-9/11. Reporters Warren Strobel (James Marsden) and Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) are competing with the big boys to break timely stories.
U.S. commander in chief George Bush says Iraq’s somehow got something to do with 9/11, and Saddam Hussein’s amassing weapons of mass destruction. And we definitely need to immediately go over there, en masse, and shock and awe the heck out of Iraq with the full power of our mighty military. Make Saddam quit all that badness.
That’s the story the White House is telling, and they’re sticking to it. But while Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice yak about weapons of mass destruction, Landay and Strobel are hearing stories from their various inside sources that don’t match up, about how the Bush administration’s planning a bait-and-switch: Why would they start bombing Iraq, with the intel that bin Laden’s gone into hiding in Pakistan?
Knight Ridder is an umbrella news organization, and to the amazement and extreme frustration of Landay and Strobel’s boss, John Walcott (Rob Reiner), his reporters’ exemplary work gets snubbed by most of the other Knight Ridder papers, for a variety of lame reasons like, “The tone doesn’t fit in.” The heavyweight newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, simply regurgitate the fake news spoon-fed them by the powers that be in Washington.
Realizing they’re the only ones in the nation really doing their jobs, Landay and Strobel are soon getting browbeaten by their wives’ veteran dads at pool parties, and the reporters become rattled and start to doubt themselves. Walcott, however, hires veteran war correspondent Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones).
I don’t know about you, but I sit up in my seat and start rubbing my hands together whenever Tommy Lee takes the screen. Things are usually about to get very interesting. Not here. Not even with Mr. Jones on the team.
Meathead Should Maybe Stay Out of Politics
“Meathead” was Reiner’s character’s name in the 1970s sitcom “All in the Family.” It feels like Reiner maybe inadvertently channeled Meathead here, by directing and acting like it’s a high school play, or like it’s Meathead passionately objecting to Archie Bunker’s telling big untruths, except with no humor.
Reiner’s the only one to blame, because look at this cast: Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, James Marsden, Milla Jovovich, Jessica Biel. And Reiner. Reiner’s A-list too, but this is not his forte.
The movie’s not exactly boring. The percolating newsroom, with reporters chasing leads and sources, with dialogue concerning what’s on or off the record, with frantic notebook scribbling—it all rings true.
The problem, among other things, is the screenplay’s using such obvious devices for exposition, such as the romance between the recently separated Strobel and his comely neighbor (Jessica Biel). They go on an awkward date, and she tells him she’s done her homework, expounding the history of Iraq, and why he’s now her favorite reporter. It feels forced, one sees it coming a mile off, and one feels manipulated.
The same goes for the story line of a paraplegic former Marine, recounting to Congress how he came to be wounded in the war, and asking what the heck went on over there, anyhow. There’s just not enough quality time invested in getting to know the characters for any of this to feel compelling. The film does an OK job of isolating actual newsclips of the lies flowing from the men in power.
It’s staggering to realize that only the little news organization of Knight Ridder dared to tell the truth. Nobody else would. The mighty New York Times had to eventually apologize to its readership. In July 2014, its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, acknowledged, “The lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003 was not The Times’s finest hour.”
The reason to see this movie is to let it sink in that when President Trump talks about fake news, this is what he’s talking about. It started before him. Only one newspaper in all of our great country, from sea to shining sea, told the truth. Truth-telling is rare these days.
‘Shock and Awe’
Director: Rob Reiner
Starring: Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Tommy Lee Jones, Rob Reiner, Milla Jovovich, Jessica Biel
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Release Date: available now on DIRECTV and in theaters July 13th.
Rated 2.5 stars out of 5