Paper-thin plot proves that journos are just plain boring
‘Shock and Awe’: What should have been a tight, punchy exposure of political hubris simply plods along
Following last year’s presidential biopic LBJ, Rob Reiner continues on the political path with Shock and Awe, the true story of Knight Ridder reporters Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Warren Stroebel (James Marsden). In the wake of 9/11, while the rest of Washington and the mainstream media were flying the flag for an invasion of Iraq based on Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, they kept their heads and reported the truth.
There were, as we now know, and contrary to the stories published by the US paper of record, the New York Times (which later had to apologise), no WMDs and no justification for the disastrous invasion of Iraq. In the era of fake news you can see why Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone might have felt that this story would serve as a timely reminder of what happens when journalists get played by politicians looking to push their agendas by whatever means necessary and consequences be damned.
But while the journo-film genre has enjoyed some recent reinvigoration thanks to Spotlight and The Post and the recent British series Press, their attempt falls flat thanks to an unfocused script and the inclusion of unnecessary Hollywood subplots that don’t go anywhere. Reiner also gives himself some acting duties, playing editor John Walcott, a sort of wise worldly dad figure tasked with pontificating on the implications of all of this for the future we now know happened.
Tommy Lee Jones turns up as mysterious, connected war reporter Joe Galloway, delivering bland information with a glint in his eye more worthy of a Bond villain than a necessary addition to the narrative.
Let’s not even try to understand why Jessica Biel’s talents are wasted in a floppy love subplot involving Marsden’s reporter Stroebel. Oh and then there’s the sentimental side-story of the poor young boy Adam Green, who bought the story told to him by the media, only to find himself enlisting and being paralysed by an IED three hours after arriving in Iraq. It is a story full of teary-eyed believability but is not explored in depth or with any proper resolution.
While it offers the obligatory nod to the granddaddy of all investigative reporting films, Alan J Pakula’s All The President’s Men, Reiner’s film is hamstrung by an inability to coherently focus on any part of its story. Its dull handling of the material reminds you how hard it is to make journalism interesting on screen.
What should have been a tight, punchy, thrilling exposure of political hubris is not much more than a plodding, forgettable addition to the journalism genre that on paper should have delivered so much more.