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Rob Reiner arrives at the 2018 Pre-Grammy Gala And Salute To Industry Icons at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel on Jan. 27, 2018, in New York.Evan Agostini

I have a deep and abiding love for Rob Reiner. I adore his showbiz-family ties – his father, Carl Reiner; his ex-wife, Penny Marshall; and his ex-brother-in-law, Garry Marshall, are part of the smart-shaggy Hollywood I first fell in love with. Watching Reiner’s character on All in the Family, Michael Stivic, articulate his political positions during the 1970s helped form my own. I admire the way he’s dug into politics throughout his life (more on that in a minute). He’s my favourite kind of actor – the Gene Hackman school, totally naturalistic. And I defy you to find a director whose run of films provided more pleasure to more people than his, from 1984 to 1992: This is Spinal Tap, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…, Misery, A Few Good Men.

So, although Reiner’s new film, Shock and Awe, is stiff and speechy, I forgive him, because its heart is in the right place. It tells the true story of four Knight Ridder newspaper journalists in the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq: reporters Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (James Marsden); columnist Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones); and editor John Walcott (Reiner). (The four consulted on Joey Hartstone’s script and were on the set every day.)

Although the George W. Bush administration was putting out misinformation – and although The New York Times and The Washington Post Co. accepted it – these four defied it, and reported that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. They were the only ones to get the story right. The film implies that The Times and The Post are tougher now because of their embarrassment then.

A quick primer: Until it was bought out in 2006, Knight Ridder was a consortium of 32 daily newspapers. The Washington bureau, where the film’s heroes work, provided content which the papers used at their discretion. As it is now, 2003 was a perilous time for journalism, and many Knight Ridder papers wouldn’t run Landay and Strobel’s stories. But the duo persisted because, as Walcott says in the film’s best speech, “The Times and Post are read by people who send other people’s kids to war. Knight Ridder papers are read by the people whose own kids go.”

“As someone who was of draft age during the Vietnam War, I was apoplectic in 2003 that, for the second time in my life, the U.S. was going to war based on lies,” Reiner, 71, says in a recent phone call from Los Angeles (more specifically, from his parked car). “I wanted to make a film that focused on, ‘How can this happen? Why is this happening?’ There were good movies made about the war – The Hurt Locker, American Sniper – but nothing about the geopolitical machinations.”

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James Marsden and Rob Reiner in Shock and Awe (2017).Supplied

He developed a Dr. Strangelove-style satire, but couldn’t make the script work. Then, he saw a documentary about Bill Moyers, former U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson’s press secretary, which referred to the four journalists who got the WMD story right; and a second documentary, about a soldier who was grievously wounded in Iraq. He hired Hartstone, with whom he’d worked on his film LBJ, to fuse the two, and a year later he was in New Orleans, shooting in the abandoned newsroom of The Times-Picayune – a physical reminder of the fragility of the free press. Another reminder of the story’s timeliness: They were shooting on the day Trump was elected. (Alec Baldwin, who was supposed to play Reiner’s part, bowed out at the last minute, so he could be in New York to play Trump on SNL.)

I ask Reiner how much he worries about his country under Trump. “All day, every day,” he replies. “It’s terrible! I wake up thinking about it; I spend my day looking at things; I tweet a lot. When Trump met with Justin Trudeau, I was yelling toward our northern friends, ‘He’s not us! Sixty per cent of us don’t believe this!’ He lies all the time. It’s an onslaught. It’s really scary and upsetting.

“Because there’s no guarantee that democracy will last forever, and I feel it slipping away,” he continues. “And I gotta say, if America’s democracy doesn’t survive, we’ll see it crumble all over the world. Putin and other authoritarians are looming all over. America’s original sin of slavery is rearing its ugly head. We’re being tested, and we’ll see if we survive.”

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Woody Harrelson and James Marsden in Shock and Awe (2017).Supplied

Reiner doesn’t simply talk politics – he participates. In 1998, he chaired a campaign to pass the California Children and Families Initiative, and managed the resulting fund, US$750-million a year for preschools and early-childhood health care, from 1999 to 2006. He campaigned for state-run preschools; co-founded the Social Responsibility Task Force (which advised films and television series on social issues); helped establish a California wildlife refuge; campaigned for Al Gore and Hillary Clinton; and currently serves on the advisory board of the Committee to Investigate Russia.

“If you want to know anything that’s going on in any of the investigations, or the players involved, or the timelines, you can check out our site, and it will tell you everything,” Reiner says. “Forty per cent of Americans get their news only from Fox. That’s how a misinformation campaign is solidified. So I keep telling people, ‘Focus on one thing and one thing only: the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Trump’s presidency.’ If it’s proven – and I believe it will be – that his campaign conspired with a hostile foreign enemy, that’s where the major battles will happen. His people are working overtime to try to discredit a legitimate investigation that’s already yielded many guilty pleas. His campaign manager is in jail! That’s the thing we have to focus on.”

He sighs, then adds, “If the Democrats win enough seats in the midterm election in November, they can have a check on this president. If not, hang onto your hats, because he’ll probably get elected again.”

Reiner doesn’t expect that his film will solve anything, but he wants to be part of the conversation. Even if that means losing half his public. “I get a lot of heat for talking about the news,” Reiner says. “People call me a libtard, they call me all kinds of things. Sometimes it hurts, sure. But that’s all right; that’s their right to speak out.” He tries to engage with his critics “all the time, though I find it more and more difficult.

“But I have one life, and I have to do the things I’m interested in,” he adds. “And until someone takes away my freedom of speech, I’m going to keep talking.” Incorrigible, he’s currently pitched a limited TV series about the U.S. Supreme Court, based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Nine.

Does Reiner ever feel like he’s still Michael Stivic, yelling into a headwind? “Yes!” he says. “I feel like I’m in a time warp. But the difference is, Archie Bunker is now in the White House.”

Shock and Awe opens July 27 across Canada.

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