“Damn that Woodward and Bernstein.” –News correspondent in “Shock and Awe,” name-checking the reason he wanted to become an investigative journalist.
The difference between Woodward and Bernstein and Landay and Strobel is the former duo did work that led to a president’s resignation and were played by Redford and Hoffman in a celebrated movie, while the latter’s work was mostly ignored for a long time, and they’re being played by Harrelson and Marsden in a not-so-celebrated movie.
“Shock and Awe” is a film that deserves our attention, an early 2000s piece that couldn’t be timelier in its reminder of the vital importance of having a free press that considers it a patriotic duty to question our government at every turn.
Just like the Founding Fathers wanted it to be.
This film probably won’t have 1 percent of the impact of “All the President’s Men,” but this is not to disparage the vital journalism of Knight-Ridder reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel. Nor am I short-changing the talents of Woody Harrelson and James Marsden, who deliver outstanding performances as Landay and Strobel, respectively.
(At the time, Knight-Ridder provided stories to some 32 newspapers across the United States.)
From the opening establishing shot showing the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument with a plaintive French horn swelling on the score, veteran director Rob Reiner is harkening to his previous films “A Few Good Men” and “An American President.”
Although the timeline shifts back and forth a few times, the bulk of “Shock and Awe” is centered on the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when the George W. Bush administration quickly pivoted the focus from the bin Laden-led terrorists to Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
Harrelson’s Landay is a seasoned, cynical war correspondent, while Marsden’s Strobel is greener, more earnest. Reiner (quite good) has the Jason Robards/Ben Bradlee editor/mentor role as John Walcott, who does classic Movie News Editor things like asking the guys if they have multiple sources, barking at them to get out of his office, and delivering a stirring speech in the newsroom at just the right moment.
At times “Shock and Awe” is reminiscent of journalistic procedurals from “President’s Men” to “Spotlight” to “The Post,” and it gets the nitty-gritty details of an early 2000s newsroom just right. Reiner shows the journalists meeting with myriad sources, identified onscreen not by name but as “State Department Official” or “Intelligence Analyst” or “Senior Government Official” — just as they would be ID’d in stories. (A reminder that in the hands of real journalists, “anonymous source” does NOT mean Fake News.)
Says a Middle East Expert: “To lump together a secular leader like Saddam with an Islamic extremist like bin Laden is simply to have no understanding of the Muslim world.”
Meanwhile, we see news footage of Bush talking about “the axis of evil,” Cheney saying he believes U.S. troops “will be greeted as liberators” in Iraq, and Rumsfeld at a Pentagon briefing in 2002, delivering his infamous “There are known knowns …” response.
Madness. And yet the mainstream media dutifully went with the narrative that Saddam was building WMD, and there was little choice but to invade Iraq. (Meanwhile, bin Laden had slipped away to Pakistan.)
“We are Knight-Ridder,” says Walcott. “We’re not NBC … ABC, the New York Times, the Washington Post. … If every other news organization wants to be stenographers for the Bush administration, let them. We don’t write for people who send other people’s kids to war. We write for people who send their kids to war.”
In a perfect stroke of casting, Tommy Lee Jones shows up as Joe Galloway, the legendary journalist awarded the Bronze Star for heroics during the early stages of the Vietnam War. (Mel Gibson played Galloway in the movie “We Were Soldiers” — and the first time we see Galloway here, it’s at a press conference for the movie. Nice touch!)
Walcott convinces his old pal to get back in the game, and Galloway reinforces the efforts of Landay and Strobel to prove all this talk of WMD is just an excuse to start a war.
When Bush tells the nation, “This is a fact. It cannot be denied. …. [Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction,” Galloway turns to Walcott and dryly remarks, “It’s a good thing he can draw on all that experience he got while NOT serving in the National Guard.”
The story loses momentum with a corny romance subplot involving Marsden’s Strobel and Jessica Biel’s Lisa. (It’s a bit of a stretch to see these two beautiful people awkwardly exchanging pleasantries at the world’s saddest Valentine’s Day Singles Mixer.) And at times the speechifying gets too heavy-handed.
Mostly, though, “Shock and Awe” is a powerful reminder of the mass con job that led to thousands of American servicemen and women being killed or injured (and thousands of Iraqi casualties), some $2 trillion in spending — and the discovery of zero WMD’s.
In a coda, “Shock and Awe” tells us, “The New York Times eventually apologized to is readers” for its false and misleading reporting, led by Judith Miller’s stories that were later determined to be based on false information.
Miller appears in a clip with Jon Stewart, who says she got it wrong.
“Almost everybody got it wrong,” replies Miller. “Except Knight-Ridder.”
Vertical Entertainment presents a film directed by Rob Reiner and written by Joey Hartstone. Rated R (for language including some sexual references). Running time: 90 minutes. Opens Friday at Streets of Woodfield in Schaumburg and Village Crossing in Skokie.