Without question, filmmaker Rob Reiner has his heart in the right place. The story of the Knight Ridder journalists who pursued the truth about the War in Iraq is one worth telling. Even in today’s climate where anger is at peak form, it’s prudent to remember the lies of a past President and his administration. However, in making this movie, Reiner has made far too many missteps. Despite his best intentions, “Shock and Awe” has neither aspect of its title. Formulaic, overly concerned with dramatized subplots, and lacking in precision, it’s an imperfect beast. Reiner is clearly passionate about the material, but he can’t translate that to the screen.
“Shock and Awe” desperately wants to follow in the footsteps of “Spotlight.” While there are some similarities, one stands tall as a modern classic, and the other is rather flawed. No points for guessing which is which. Here, too much of it feels like it was made up, especially with its need to fill in the blanks about its main characters. Reiner’s movie traffics in generalities, another weakness. Watching this, you’ll never be stunned in the way watching “Spotlight” stunned you. Instead, you’ll have Reiner hitting you over the head again and again with the importance of independent journalism and the lies of the Bush White House. These are worthwhile points, to be sure, but they’re never compellingly executed in the movie.
The film covers the time from 9/11 until right after the invasion of Iraq. Chiefly, it follows Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (James Marsden), two journalists for Knight Ridder. In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, they find through their sources that the impending war isn’t what it seems. As President George W. Bush and his administration prepare more to go into Iraq than Afghanistan, Landay and Strobel attempt to confirm this and figure out why. In between crusading for the truth, Landay juggles a home life with wife Vlatka (Milla Jovovich), while Strobel begins an awkward romance with Lisa (Jessica Biel).
Though the articles are being written, papers aren’t publishing the stories. This provides no shortage of annoyance for John Walcott (Reiner). He even brings in Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones) as a form of secret weapon. Still, Bush’s war appears inevitable. Students of recent history should obviously know where this is all going. Essentially, “Shock and Awe” wants to be a cautionary tale of sorts, even if its effectiveness is rather limited.
There’s a very solid cast on display here. Trouble is, the script cares more about them than the job they’re doing. That’s beneficial to the actors, though it hurts the flick itself. Woody Harrelson’s Landay and James Marsden’s Strobel are likable characters, but they never seem fully real. In part, it’s due to the former’s jokey nature, along with the latter’s all too movie-like romantic subplot. Throw in Milla Jovovich as a one note conspiracy theorist and Jessica Biel’s character is wholly unnecessary while you’re at it. These four are solid actors/actresses turning in solid work, but their material isn’t up to snuff. Not to continue the comparison, but they can’t hold a candle to the “Spotlight” crew, namely Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo.
A slight spark is given by Tommy Lee Jones, with his laconic sarcasm, as well as with Reiner himself, as the old vets have a welcoming presence. They’re strictly supporting players though, with nothing utterly necessary to add beyond expository material. Also along for this ride is Richard Schiff, plus Kate Butler, Al Sapienza, and Teri Wyble. Jones and Reiner match Harrelson and Marsden, quality-wise, just with distracting subplots and less screen time.
Director Rob Reiner has been on a mild upswing of late. This and “LBJ” spark his political passions, helping give a little personality to his otherwise rough recent filmography. Still, “Shock and Awe” pales in comparison to his best work. Now 20 years or more removed from his last brush with greatness, perhaps this is what we should expect from now on? Reiner’s direction lacks form here, just going through the motions. Mostly, he puts his faith in the script by Joey Hartstone (who also penned “LBJ”), which never jumps out at you. It could just as easily have been a fictional effort. The realism doesn’t showcase itself in any way. Again, it results in a dulled blade, preventing any sort of cutting action. Mostly, it ends up just being Reiner preaching to the converted.
Simply put, “Shock and Awe” is a mediocre effort. The film could have potentially been great, perhaps even an awards vehicle. That wasn’t the case though, as this only offers a tiny bit of entertainment. In no way is it fulfilling. As a curiosity, it could hold some appeal for hardcore Reiner fans. It’s never bad, but it’s rarely good. Alas.