Oh god, you want to love it. You really, really want to love it, or at least, y’know, like it a lot, to stand up and cheer with it. I mean, a movie about journalists, real ones, doing what they do best, pounding the pavement and searching for the truth? Hasn’t the Fourth Estate suffered enough slings and arrows in the past few years? Haven’t they – and we – earned a shoe-leathered hero’s journey, a vindication and a victory lap, especially when history has declared these lone questioning voices in the syndicated-press wilderness to be the ones who saw through a facade? Not to mention that it’s a story that involves people, and does not feature a single robot, wookiee, dinosaur, superhero (not a caped one, anyway), sicario and/or vampire (unless you count Dick Cheney)? Shouldn’t this be the film we deserve?
Seriously, you want to love it. It hurts. It hurts so badly that you just … you just can’t.
The idea that someone would make a movie about Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, the Knight-Ridder reporters who questioned the Bush’s administration rush to war in Iraq after 9/11, is both bold counterprogramming and a necessary corrective – these men should be household names a la Woodward and Bernstein. If some sticklers might claim that James Mardsen and Woody Harrelson aren’t exactly Hoffman and Redford, they’re still talented actors who show up and put in the work; Harrelson in particular has been a solid team player and a sly MVP for any number of projects over the past few years. The fact that someone would name this chronicle of dogged journalists poking holes in the political narrative Shock and Awe suggests some come-at-me-bro cajones. There’s a recognizable supporting cast on deck: Jessica Biel, Milla Jovovich, an extra cranky Tommy Lee Jones, a bona fide West Wing alumnus in Richard Shiff.
It’s the “Directed by Rob Reiner” bit that gives you pause at first. Not that he hasn’t done great work in the past – most filmmakers can’t claim a back catalog featuring When Harry Met Sally and Misery and This Is Spinal Tap and The American President and Stand By Me. And maybe, just maybe, he’s the exact leftist sabre-rattler to express our righteousness and anger over this pivotal moment of hawkish behavior and hurtful “alternative facts” policy. So you cross your fingers, and you think: Ok, this could go either way. It’s either going to be A Few Good President’s Men or something slightly south of North.
It is not the first one.
From the moment the old-school sweeping score comes in over a shot of the Capitol building and the speechifying starts in earnest (courtesy of screenwriter Joey Hartstone, who also wrote Reiner’s 2016 LBJ biopic, which, let’s forget we just brought that up, shall we?), this tale of white-collar white knights standing up for truth, justice and the American way feels like a throwback in the worst way possible. All the right greatest hits are trotted out – the “Axis of Evil” speech, the Judith Miller debacle, the contradictory clips from Dubya cronies, the pressing of sources ID-ed as “Middle East Expert” and “Administration Official,” the montage of headlines and red-penning nut grafs. All the wrong moves happen dramatically, from Harrelson’s Landay mouthing off in a way that conspicuously screams “he’s such a maverick!” to several forced Mardsen-Biel meet-cutes to Reiner giving his editor character an inspirational speech – “One question: Is is true?” – almost drowned out by self-conscious fanfare. There’s a creakiness to the whole endeavor that feels like it may have been pulled out of Clinton-era time capsule and had Rumsfeld, et al. references dubbed in.
You can’t say its intentions are not noble, especially in its subplot involving a soldier (Luke Tennie) who we meet as paraplegic testifying before a veterans’ affairs commitee, rattling off stats and asking those of us on the other side of the screen, “How the hell did this happen?” We then follow his arc from aimless young man to witnessing military men gearing up for war, from idealistic recruit to the victim of an IED on his first day overseas. He is the humanizing aspect of this story, the flesh-and-blood collateral damage of the lies told by people in power. We know this because the movie tells us this, over and over, when it’s not making its reporters come off as charming rascals or giving us lines like “when you’re creating your own reality it’s pretty easy to ignore the facts” in 22-point font. It’s an important story to remember right now, assuming you can remember anything after being beaten over the head with talking points for 90 minutes. But at its best, Shock and Awe still feels like it strains to be Spotlight-lite and comes up lacking. The title is a misnomer.