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Review: Journalism drama Shock and Awe sparks exactly the wrong kind of headlines

James Marsden, left, and Rob Reiner in Shock and Awe.

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Shock and Awe

Directed by: Rob Reiner

Written by: Joey Hartstone

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Starring: Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Tommy Lee Jones and Rob Reiner

Classification: 14A

90 minutes

rating

At a low point for its protagonists, the journalism drama Shock and Awe shows them drowning their sorrows in a bar, ruefully recalling how the example of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein convinced them to become reporters. The tip-of-the-hat hardly seems necessary: This sadly derivative film has one too many screenings of All the President’s Men written all over it.

If the Washington Post reporters’ work on Watergate did actually inspire Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (James Marsden) – as it did a whole generation of journalists – it was a great good thing: Working for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain’s Washington bureau in the years following Sept. 11, 2001, these two were among a handful of U.S. journalists who actually questioned the Bush administration’s claim that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction.”

Over in the fictional realm, however, the influence is much less felicitous.

There have been a few other crusading-journalism movies since 1976 – most recently the Oscar-winning Spotlight in 2015 – but director Rob Reiner (who also stars as the reporters’ editor John Walcott) remembers All the President’s Men the best. Occasionally he seems to lift scenes right out of it – the nighttime interview on a source’s porch; the newsroom gathering around the TV set – to a wan, second-hand effect.

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The film, which reunites Reiner with his LBJ bio-pic scriptwriter Joey Hartstone and star Harrelson, starts in confusion and cliché, and never emerges from it. First, we are introduced to Adam Green (Luke Tennie), a young vet in a wheelchair ready to tell a Senate committee where the politicians went wrong, before we go galloping backward after Landay, caught in the middle of a training exercise for war correspondents as the first tower is struck on Sept. 11. The drama is hurried yet the tension is erratic. As an American who has paid an obvious personal price for the folie à deux of defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and vice-president Dick Cheney, Green and his story pop up from time to time, interrupting the journalism plot without every achieving much emotional weight.

Meanwhile, it’s always hard to make reporting, which mainly involves talking to people, look dramatic, and Reiner doesn’t have many new ideas. Landay and Strobel razz each other good-naturedly as they compete for the story; they meet with sources and they work the phones. (Although by 2003 they would actually have been more dependent on the even-less-exciting e-mail.) Meanwhile, Hartstone throws in various personal story lines – Landay has a Yugoslavian wife who knows about war; Strobel is dating a new girlfriend – to little effect.

That girlfriend actually studies up for their first date, thereby allowing Hartstone a long piece of exposition about Strobel’s reporting on the quest for evidence to support the White House theory that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11. The film is also studded with unfortunate moments where someone, often Reiner himself in his on-screen role, tells us just how important this is. Can Walcott really have predicted that the New York Times would one day have to apologize to its readers for its uncritical coverage of the Iraq file?

Reiner’s performance is firm enough, as is that of the quietly effective Tommy Lee Jones as Joe Galloway, the retired Vietnam war correspondent who joins Knight Ridder because he believes they’ve got the story right. Marsden and Harrelson have a harder time with their roles. Marsden makes Strobel pleasantly bland, an unlikely personality for a dogged reporter. Meanwhile, as Landay, Harrelson can never quite fashion an integrated personality out of all the character traits Reiner throws at him, from macho foreign correspondent to sensitive family man to the exuberant eccentric who makes an initial appearance dressed in bright yellow Lycra bike gear because he rode to work on Sept. 11.

The Knight Ridder story is inherently less dramatic than that of the Washington Post, which blew Watergate open in the space of a year; Landay and Strobel’s reporting evolved over a longer period and their vindication arrived anti-climactically in bits and pieces following the 2003 invasion. That lack of suspense will be felt even more acutely by Canadian audiences who were exposed to a lot more journalistic skepticism at the time, in a country that chose not to join the “coalition of the willing.”

It certainly doesn’t gladden a journalist’s heart to tell a reader that this film fails. As Strobel points out in that barroom scene, Woodward and Bernstein only exposed the cover-up of some political dirty tricks. The Knight Ridder reporters uncovered evidence of a presidency that ignored its own intelligence, lied to the public, wasted billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of Americans and a million Iraqis to pursue the obsession of a few men. Today, in the midst of another ill-considered and mendacious U.S. presidency that routinely insults the press, the whole world could really use an inspirational version of the Knight Ridder story.

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Shock and Awe opens July 27

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