Film Review: Shock and Awe

Rob Reiner’s flat-footed, exposition-laden film portrays the journalistic team at Knight Ridder that refused to buy into President Bush’s Iraq war and got it right when the big media guns did not.
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If “Meathead” wanted to be a movie director making important political statements (assuming he allowed himself to dream on such a big scale), he might aspire to become, well, someone like Rob Reiner, and the film might be Shock and Awe, a testimonial to the Fourth Estate, freedom of the press, and the perseverance of journalists who, not unlike Don Quixote tilting at windmills, soldier on against all odds for truth, justice and the American way.

Reiner’s Meathead (aka Mike Stivic) was an inspired comic creation, but then, “All in the Family”was groundbreaking all the way around. Regrettably, the same cannot be said for Reiner’s Shock and Awe (from a screenplay by Joey Hartstone),a plodding film with ill-placed, klutzy exposition and credibility-defying and/or colorless characters that are spokespersons for various predictable viewpoints.

Yep, it’s a true Meathead production, his earnest intentions and grand ambitions making it that much worse. Humor is nowhere to be found, though at a recent screening critics tittered away at serious scenes that were so obvious as to be comic.

As everyone remembers (or not): in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush claimed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (when in fact there were none) and that Saddam Hussein was allied with al-Qaida (no evidence for that either), thus paving the way for the counterproductive invasion of Iraq resulting in thousands of deaths.

Shock and Awepays tribute to a team of lesser-known journalists who wrote for the now-defunct Knight Ridder, a large newspaper syndicate, which rejected the party line in stark contrast to the big media guns that unquestionably bought the official handouts and published their findings.

The holdouts were editor John Walcott (Reiner), reporters Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson), Warren Strobel (James Marsden), and Joe Galloway (a charismatic Tommy Lee Jones), a crusty veteran war correspondent who came onboard insisting that President Bush and his minions were doling out lies. In the end, The New York Times acknowledged that the second-string reporters were right all along and apologized for its own bad reporting. Archival footage, including NYT reporter Judith Miller offering a mea culpa, is interspersed throughout.

Reiner recounts Landay and Stroebel’s rugged journey to vindication. For starters, the newsmen did not have access to the major-league federal players. Many of the syndicate’s own papers wouldn’t publish their pieces. Their dads berated them for what they viewed as anti-American viewpoints. Landay’s wife (Milla Jovovich), a conspiracy theorist, accused him of endangering his whole family with his reporting. This is a classic David-vs.-Goliath tale on the work and home front.

Subtle it isn’t. But nothing is more blatant than the heart-tugging opening snippet that presents a wheelchair-bound black soldier (Luke Tennie) testifying at a hearing on Iraq and expressing his love of country and commitment to service. But in the end, he just can’t help being confused. “How the hell did this happen?” His story appears intermittently with rousing military music as backdrop.

The central narrative lacks momentum and urgency. Much of it feels like a visual aid to Journalism 101. Tacked-on subplots abound. The most absurd is Landay’s budding sitcom romance with a neighbor (Jessica Biel) whose purpose it soon becomes clear is to give the viewer a thumbnail history of Iraq gussied up as a seduction strategy, her research ostensibly culled and spewed forth to impress Landay. And it works. He digs her, digs her knowledge. That scene elicited a loud collective giggle from the reviewers at the screening.

Reiner has a track record and an impressive range as a director. Think When Harry Met Sally… or The Princess Bride or Misery. If only he steered clear of the ham-fisted politics that manage to gum up his movies every time they surface. Remember Andrew Shepherd’s (Michael Douglas) excessive speechifying (referencing the First Amendment, gun control and carbon dioxide emissions) at the end of The American President, an otherwise delightful throwback of a romantic comedy? The film was set up as a lead-in to the heady proclamations that serve as its coda.

In Ghosts of Mississippi, a self-satisfied film loosely based on the third trial of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods), convicted of assassinating Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, Reiner focuses his lens on prosecuting attorney Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin), who brings the killer to justice in 1989, 26 years after the event. Discomforting “white savior” themes aside, the film suffers from many of the same flaws as Shock and Awe, though not as flagrantly.One suspects Reiner wanted to make Mississippi Burning and Ghosts was his Johnny-come-lately contribution to the topic of the Civil Rights movement.

Likewise his LBJ (starring Harrelson), a lackluster biopic, became his hop-on-the-bandwagon offering in a period that saw an outpouring of movies that featured—and in one instance starred—our 36th President, from All the Way to Jackie to Selma to the TV mini-series “The Kennedys.”

And now it’s the press. Newsmakers have become hotter than ever thanks in large part to President Trump’s daily assaults on them, not to mention media pundits endlessly commenting on their daunting tasks. It’s a Mecca moment for Fourth Estate reflection and celebration.

You don’t have to go much further than Steven Spielberg’s The Post zeroing in on the The Washington Post's 1971 role in publishing “The Pentagon Papers,” revealing government lies about the Vietnam War that spanned decades. There was no particular reason for that film to be produced this past winter short of Spielberg’s desire to draw parallels to today’s political scene. And he was preaching to the choir every step of the way, not least by putting a woman publisher, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), in the driver’s seat. Yes, The Post was entertaining and fast-paced but calculated to a fare-thee-well.

The newsroom has hada folkloric status dating all the way back to Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur’s madcap comedy The Front Page, only to be topped by its film incarnations, including the iconic His Girl Friday, staring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as the go-getting reporter Hildy Johnson (gender-switching 1940s-style) with everyone emitting clipped, rapid-fire dialogue awash in witticisms.

Perhaps even more seminal, the comic strip Superman (1939), its subsequent movie iterations and, most vividly, its kitschy/campy TV spin “The Adventures of Superman,” featuring beleaguered editor Perry White, dimwitted cub reporter Jimmy Olsen and, of course, Superman himself, who “can leap tall buildings in a single bound” and shape-shift from the gentle reporter Clark Kent (in a phone booth, no less). Consider it: the Reporter as Superman (lots of dissertations on that one).

And my favorite, the short-lived (20 episodes. ’74-’75), very Grade B “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” starring Darren McGavin as our intrepid reporter who sports a bow tie and porkpie hat as he pads around the streets in the wee hours investigating bizarre crimes involving supernatural creatures, while trying to convince his exasperated, at times apoplectic editor Tony Vincenzo that he’s pursing worthwhile stories.

There’s been no shortage of serious journalism films either—from the biographical to the semi-biographical to the fictional—exploring a spectrum of ethical/moral/legal issues facing reporters: driving ambition heading the list (Ace in the Hole, Absence of Malice); conflict of interest a close second (State of Play); compassion/privacy vs. the public’s right to know coming in third.

The most successful journalism films are Spotlight and All The President’s Men, garnering dozens of awards between them, both films recounting the painstaking experiences of dogged reporters (at the Boston Globe and Washington Post) up against the Catholic Church and the White House, respectively, and effecting seismic political/cultural change in the aftermath of their reporting. The Globelifted the lid on the extensive sexual abuse of youngsters by priests and its cover-up by the Archdiocese, while the Post’s Woodward and Bernstein brought to light corruption, illegal surveillance and concealment all the way up the Republican food chain to President Nixon, who resigned in disgrace because of their unprecedented coverage. All The President’s Menwas the impetus for hundreds, if not thousands, of kids across the country applying to journalism schools.

Comparisons between Shock and Awe and All the President’s Men are built in and that doesn’t help. The Knight Ridder story is just not as compelling and neither are the characters, at least as depicted. Harrelson is as usual “wound up” (no one does it better), but it wears a tad thin here, and Marsden is almost a blank canvas. They make the right noises at each other, encourage each other when they’re down, but they’re forgettable. The most egregious performance is Reiner’s. His Walcott is an ineffectual teddy bear, his dismissive gesture that employs the fingers of both hands suggests a flicking away of dust mites.

The turning point centers on Walcott giving a motivational speech in the newsroom, rallying the troops as he reminds them they must pursue the truth for the sake of their readers: the soldiers themselves and their parents who send their children off to war, some of whom will return in body bags. It’s one of the few interesting scenes in the film, not as a call to action—that aspect feels hokey at best—but as a glimpse into how demographics inform the news that needs to be published despite the company’s restricted admittance to the upper echelons of government. I wish we had learned more about that instead of a tale that raises the question:Why are we hearing this now?

Even if it were a more gripping narrative, The Knight Ridder chronicle doesn’t resonate. Who is its counterpart today? That ship has sailed. Reiner should have known better. Meathead not so much.

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