Shock and Awe

★★★✩

 

With daily news headlines dominated by the unprecedented and outlandish behaviour of U.S. President Donald Trump, it’s easy to forget a time not so long ago when a previous commander-in-chief committed a geopolitical atrocity — the 2003 invasion of Iraq — and more or less got away with it.

With Shock and Awe, director Rob Reiner has given himself a singularly difficult task, of trying to engage audiences in a story that will, for many battered and bruised by current events, seem almost like ancient history.

Yes, we might remember George W. Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” appearance above an aircraft carrier following the successful toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein, or former vice-president Dick Cheney’s horribly misjudged belief that U.S. troops would be “greeted as liberators.”

What Reiner sets out to do, in addition to recalling the carnage that ensued and the long, pointless occupation of Iraq that followed, is to remind us that there were some in the journalistic world who got it right as they struggled vainly to report that the Bush administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were, well, fake news.

Screenwriter Joey Hartstone focuses on an intrepid group of journalists at the newspaper chain Knight-Ridder, Washington editor John Walcott (capably played by Reiner) and reporters Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (James Marsden), and former Vietnam War correspondent and columnist Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones), who came out of retirement to work for Walcott.

The story gives audiences an inside look at how journalism actually works at ground level, including the cultivation of sources, the use of “background” and off-the-record information. It has a strong feel of authenticity.

The film also delves into the personal life stories of Landay and Strobel, a divorced man kindling a new relationship with a next door neighbour, as they chase down the story that the U.S. administration doesn’t want anyone to know and that ordinary folk were genuinely reluctant to hear.

Harrelson and Marsden deliver lively and likeable performances, and there’s some good supporting work from Jessica Biel as Strobel’s new love interest and Milla Jovovich as Landay’s spouse, Vlatka, who grows increasingly concerned about her husband’s welfare.

The actual toll in cost and lives lost is offered as a postscript, which further notes the New York Times eventually apologized to its readers for its coverage.

It’s an accomplished work that offers a cautionary note about believing too easily in what your political leaders are peddling.

But in the age of Trump, Shock and Awe suffers from particularly bad timing. It really ought to be seen and appreciated but it’s not clear that a receptive audience is waiting.

Read more here.