A baby-faced American soldier, wheelchair-bound, glides silently across a courtroom floor and explains to a judge that he was boots-on-the-ground in Iraq for precisely three hours when a roadside IED tore through his squad, severing his spinal cord and killing the rest. "How the hell does this happen?" he angrily asks.
This question is at the center of Rob Reiner's Shock and Awe, a movie about the post-9/11 era of Bush-Cheney, the occupation of Iraq and the dangerous implications of a government lying to its people. But it's also a tale of heroic journalism against seeming insurmountable odds and a sort of early-aughts parallel to that most famous newspaper movie of all time, All the President's Men.
It's here we meet Warren Strobel (James Marsden) and Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson), two very real Knight-Ridder journos who unearthed the absurd motivations behind war in the Middle East post-9/11 despite a shocking lack of evidence, alongside their valiant chief editor John Walcott (Reiner). As the rest of the country's mainstream media pushes out the government's false narrative (remember when the New York Times apologized to its readers?), Strobel and Landay follow the actual facts, reporting the truth even as their friends and family and even the American public doubt their credibility and work.
Today, of course, we know these men to have been right—Hussein may have been evil, but he certainly didn't possess WMDs, nor was he in cahoots with Bin Laden; Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Bush and Cheney were … well, fuck 'em, we should've been in Afghanistan—the point is, these journalists were right and eventually acknowledged for their fine work and bravery. God bless the Fourth Estate, right?
Still, for every satisfying moment or silly little in-joke about copy editing, there are truly perplexing choices. Like if the journalist Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones) was so vital to Strobel and Landay's ongoing good work, why is the role relegated to a few tired lines about how he's old or how glory is for the young folk? And that war veteran from before? We catch snippets of his journey from small town boy to disabled former soldier, but as far as Shock and Awe's "they're sending your kids to a needless death!" agenda goes, it seems painfully underdeveloped and all too brief. Borderline emotionally manipulative, even. Perhaps Reiner was really just looking to illustrate his point—y'know, to really drive it home—but they feels like scenes from a different film. And besides, we were pissed off enough already.
Shock and Awe paints a fine history lesson, though, and a provides a good reminder that the good old US of A would be a hell of a lot more terrifying if there weren't brave newspaper folk who've made it their lives' work to shine a light on powerful assholes being assholes. Wow. Who would've thought a movie about kickass journalism would resonate with us?
+Feels so good to be right
-Pretty heavy-handed at times
Shock and Awe
Directed by Reiner
With Marsden, Harrelson, Reiner and Jones
Jean Cocteau Cinema, R, 90 min.