Shock and Awe

You can tell they’re journalists by their rumpled clothes.

(2017) True Life Drama (VerticalWoody Harrelson, James Marsden, Rob Reiner, Tommy Lee Jones, Jessica Biel, Milla Jovovich, Richard Schiff, Luke Tennie, Terence Rosemore, Margo Moorer, Michael Harding, Kate Butler, Luke White, Gabe White, Bowen Hoover, Caroline Fourmy, Teri Wyble, Al Sapienza, Steve Coulter, Gretchen Koerner. Directed by Rob Reiner

 

We live in a world where the press is often vilified for having an anti-American agenda – by the President. We live in a world where good journalism is often – if you’ll excuse the expression – trumped by potential profit. We also live in a world where we have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for nearly 20 years, the longest period we have ever been in a sustained conflict.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, though. America had just endured the horror of 9/11 and the people were eager to make someone pay. Afghanistan was a good candidate since they had given bin-Laden and Al Qaeda shelter, but then the rumors that George Bush, Dick Cheyney and Donald Rumsfeld were planning on invading Iraq as well took a lot of people by surprise. “Oh, but Weapons of Mass Destruction,” said the White House and everyone believed it, even though there was little or no evidence that they existed.

Not everyone believed; reporters for the Washington bureau of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain (for whom I once toiled although by 2001 I had been gone for five years) Warren Strobel (Marsden) and Jonathan Landay (Harrelson) were mystified at the media’s simple acceptance of the government’s claims without even basic fact checking, and began to dive deeper into those claims. What they found was disturbing to say the least, but nobody wanted to hear it; many of the papers in the Knight-Ridder chain refused to print the articles the men wrote, preferring to accept New York Times reporter Judith Miller and her pro-government assertions, for which she and the Times would later apologize – and which effectively ended Miller’s career as a respected journalist.

Clearly the film takes its cues from All the President’s Men, certainly the high end of crusading journalist movies. Reiner, who has made his share of politically charged movies (A Few Good Men and LBJ among them) doesn’t really instill the film with a lot of passion; perhaps it’s that he had to pull double duty as an actor when Alec Baldwin pulled out of the film literally a day before shooting started (it was a scheduling thing) but the movie is curiously low-energy.

Perhaps part of the film’s problem is that despite an excellent cast and a story that deserves to be told, it didn’t end well. The war, as we all know, happened and continues to happen to this day; thousands of American lives lost, literally more than a million Iraqi citizens dead, trillions of dollars spent and, well, here we still are. I suppose Strobel and Landay have the satisfaction of having been right but they weren’t able to convince anybody as we got our first taste of politics as entertainment. The media’s failure here only added to the distrust of the Fourth Estate which of course Trump and his cronies are exploiting and which have helped America into the mess it’s in now. Yes, I’m recommending the film – it’s a cautionary tale worth listening to, and it’s well-acted for the most part – but it’s a downer. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

REASONS TO SEE: The cast is extraordinary. Has a documentary-like feel, in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little heavy on the journalistic aphorisms.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Jones and Harrelson have appeared in the same film together, most notably in Natural Born Killers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spotlight
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Hamlet in the Golden Vale

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