In the wake of the recent Mueller report and the disappointment felt by those who hoped it would hasten the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, Rob Reiner’s earnest paean to the old-fashioned virtues of hard-hitting newspaper journalism may, in fact, only serve to rub salt in those wounds being nursed by liberals like Reiner himself. Shock and Awe chronicles the painstaking research that the Knight Ridder newspaper group carried out to prove that the weapons of mass destruction Bush II posited as the reason for invadeing Iraq in 2003 were essentially made up. Almost every other media outlet in America bought the administration story, so Knight Ridder should have come to represent what’s left of responsible journalism, but for the most part journalism didn’t survive the Bush years, as we can easily tell by the shrill tone used to cover both the Obama and Trump administrations. The lesson the Trump folks want us to take away from Mueller is that the mainstream press can’t be trusted, which is also what Shock and Awe tries to tell us.
This isn’t to say Knight Ridder and Fox News exist on the same plane of responsibility, but it does explain how herd mentality can cut both ways. Thus the movie already has one strike against it, since its obvious partisan leanings make it polemical from the get go. Reiner casts himself as KR’s Washington bureau chief, John Walcott, who despite his constant pronouncements about getting facts and concentrating on statements that can be corroborated tends to couch everything in pseudo-philosophical received wisdom that’s usually less profound than it sounds. The government is expected to lie? What else is new? This somewhat irritating tone is exacerbated by his two lead reporters, Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (James Marsden), whose adherence to these principles are not so much bred-in-the-bone but rather adopted as a kind of dogma.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with upholding sound tenets of responsible journalism, but in making that the central theme of the film he loses track of the story about the WMDs, whose complexity isn’t sorted out the way, say, the Watergate intrigue was in All the President’s Men, which is the gold standard for this type of movie. What Alan J. Pakula got right was that the intrigues themselves were enough to draw the viewer in, and once there, the viewer understood the importance of responsible journalism. In Shock and Awe, the two journalists are constantly running around, chasing leads, and running up against official stonewalling. But the mechanics of the fraud that Bush & Co. perpetrated on the American media and public are buried beneath platitudes and smug posturing about how the New York Times (Judith Miller is royally dissed) and the Washington Post fell for the lies while Knight Ridder didn’t. Does the mass media deserve the blame? Of course. Was Knight Ridder’s work vindicated by the passage of time? No question. But in journalism the value of work done well is simply being right. It’s not about lording it over your nominal competitors and adversaries.
Opens March 29 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).
Shock and Awe home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2017 Shock and Awe Productions LLC