It’s safe to say that after 20-plus years of subpar filmmaking, it would have been easy to write off director Rob Reiner as having his best works (This Is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally…, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, Misery, A Few Good Men, The American President) so far back in his rearview mirror that they were over the horizon line. His LBJ biopic last year, starring Woody Harrelson, was a step in the right direction, but almost nobody noticed it was even out there to view. The good new is that his latest work, the down-and-dirty Shock and Awe, harkens back to some of Reiner’s more crackling dramas from the 1990s.
Written by Joey Hartstone, this real-life drama follows step-by-frustrating-step the lives of Knight Ridder journalists Jonathan Landay (Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (James Marsden), who were the lone news writers calling bullshit on the Bush Administration circa 2003, during the build up to the Iraq War. History has taught us that these men were the only ones who got the story right by not taking the word of the official mouthpieces of the administration and, instead, talking to lower-level government and military personnel who had access to tiny bits of information that, when pieced together, formed a big picture filled with ignored intelligence, wish fulfillment and flat-out lies that the media, Congress, and the American people were buying because they wanted payback for 9/11.
The film reveals that, unlike the current administration, those working under Bush understood that by not responding to Knight Ridder’s stories, most of their accusation went unheard and unnoticed, and to those who did happen to catch wind of their expert reporting, the writers looked like crackpots and conspiracy theorists. Under the watchful eye and guiding hand of their editor John Walcott (played by Reiner), and the support of Landay’s wife Vlatka (Milla Jovovich) and Strobel’s new girlfriend Lisa (Jessica Biel), they kept churning out their stories even with threats of bodily harm coming their way almost daily.
In many ways, this is Reiner’s version of The Post. There are no actors playing members of the administration, because the film expertly weaves in actual footage of Bush, Rumsfeld, Chaney and others into his story. The search for weapons of mass destruction, the warnings that this war would be another generation’s version of Vietnam, and the search for why Bush’s people were so eager to enter Iraq even though there were not real ties to the 9/11 terrorists or Osama bin Laden are all subjects Landay and Strobel were willing to bring up when no one else would. All this because they were afraid of losing their access to the White House and other key players during the inevitable road to war.
As much as Reiner is one of the kings of the Hollywood’s liberals, the film takes a wide sweep and lays blame at every news outlet at the time, including CNN and The New York Times. His objective seems pretty clear—to show us an administration that made wholesale lying a part of its policy and the dangers of the fourth estate not doing simple due diligence with the facts spoon fed to it. Harrelson and Marsden (who continues to prove his merit as an acting talent, especially after a hell of season of “Westworld” this year) are quite good and have a professional chemistry that is right up there with some of the best newspaper dramas.
Coming in with a meaty supporting role is Tommy Lee Jones as former war correspondent Joe Galloway, who is brought back into the fold after being away for years and giving the younger reporters leads and contacts they otherwise wouldn’t have access to (including one played nicely by Richard Schiff). The film is filled with a few nice period touches from the ’90s, but it doesn’t get lost in them. And the resulting film manages to be quietly powerful even with its small scale. You may have to seek this one out in a suburban theater, but it’s worth it to get that sweet slap across the face-style wake-up call.
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