D: Rob Reiner / 90m
Cast: Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Rob Reiner, Tommy Lee Jones, Jessica Biel, Milla Jovovich, Richard Schiff, Luke Tennie
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the US government began asserting that Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden had been aided by Iragi leader Saddam Hussein. This was at odds with the perceived wisdom that Bin Laden was operating out of Afghanistan, and despite an on-going mission to bomb him and the country “back to the Stone Age”. With most of the mainstream media, including publishing giants such as The New York Times and The Washington Post accepting the government’s “shoddy intelligence” as fact, it was only the likes of independent news service Knight Ridder journalists Jonathan Landay (Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (Marsden) who challenged the government’s stance, and did their best to expose the neo-con conspiracy that wanted to manufacture a war with Iraq. Supported by their editor, John Walcott (Reiner), Landay and Strobel strove to find evidence to contradict the government’s assertions that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and that this was the excuse being used to support the call for war, a call that had no basis in fact…
Recently, the journalist Carl Bernstein tweeted, “This is worse than Watergate, because the system worked in Watergate.” Of course he’s referring to the current situation with Donald Trump as President, but his remark could equally apply to the state of play following 9/11. After Watergate, the Republicans began managing the mainstream news media in a way that can still be seen today, and the post-9/11 watershed in political reporting is a perfect example of how government manipulation of the truth – or outright lying, if you prefer – was aided and abetted by the news corporations. But if you’re looking for a savage indictment of this kind of behaviour then Shock and Awe is not the place to find it. Instead, the movie flits between scenes of rote exposition and misjudged solemnity as it tries to exploit a situation where one group of journalists were outmanoeuvred by the Bush Administration, and their message was undermined by not getting it out to the public in as wide a manner as was needed. So what we have is a movie that deals with failure but not in an outraged, we-demand-justice kind of way, but in a poor-naïve-us kind of way that just isn’t attractive.
It also tries to be more than it has to be by including a distaff side to things through the paranoid (yet correct) assertions of Landay’s Yugoslavian wife Vlatka (Jovovich), and an awkward, should-have-been-jettisoned-from-the-get-go boy-meets-girl scenario involving Strobel and his neighbour, Lisa Mayr (Biel) (the scene where she recounts a potted version of fourteen hundred years of Iraqi history has to be seen to be believed). These episodes sit uneasily between scenes of Landay failing to charm various sources, and Strobel continually doubting if what they’re discovering is right. Added to this is a clumsy sub-plot involving The Philadelphia Enquirer not running any of Knight Ridder’s stories when they contradict the government, and the inclusion of veteran war reporter turned State Department official Joe Galloway (Jones), whose sole purpose seems to be to provide pithy comments about the duplicitous nature of his bosses. It’s all a huge, uninspired, unworthy, and unrelentingly mediocre movie with no fire or energy, and which uses a disabled soldier (Tennie) to make a thumpingly obvious point about the waste of men and resources once the US got to Iraq. Harrelson and Marsden are unlikely reporters, and Reiner overdoes his serious, flinty editor role, but it makes no difference as there’s not one relatable character in the whole movie. Is there any shock and awe? Yes, but only at how bad it all is.
Rating: 4/10 – you know your movie’s in trouble when its best performance is given by George W. Bush in archive footage, but that’s just one of the dilemmas that Shock and Awe fails to overcome; with no sense of outrage to build on or to, and by telling a story that’s too little too late, the movie lacks a purpose or a workable design, something that should have been spotted right from the start.