'Shock and Awe' Director Rob Reiner on the Iraq War and Media in the Donald Trump Era

shock and awe film
Vertical Entertainment

Rob Reiner's latest film, Shock and Awe, may take place a decade and a half ago, but the story feels remarkably contemporary. Set during the runup to the Iraq War, the movie follows a group of journalists at the now-defunct conglomerate Knight Ridder who are investigating government and media claims that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and needs to be forcibly disarmed. With Woody Harrelson leading an impressive cast that includes James Marsden, Milla Jovovich, and Tommy Lee Jones, Shock and Awe is a true story that's also the latest Hollywood effort (following Best Picture-winning Spotlight and the Pentagon Papers drama The Post) to turn the free press into a hero itself. Reiner, who finished shooting during the 2016 presidential campaign, admits he believes the movie has taken on added importance in the era of Trump.

"We're hearing about the enemy of the people and the fake news," the director says, speaking on the phone during Trump's recent visit to England. "Even today he called CNN 'fake news' in his press conference with Theresa May. It just happens that it resonates because it's happening right now. It was different then because the press had the headwind of the trauma of 9/11, and we were all swept up in patriotism. I think the mainstream press had a real hard time going against the administration. We were all scared."

Reiner, who often speaks out against President Trump and the GOP, doesn't necessarily see a correlation between the early years of President Bush and these early years of Trump. Making this film required extensive research and the heavy involvement of the real-life journalists, offering Reiner a chance to reflect on the qualities of W. Bush versus the man currently occupying the Oval Office.

"Whatever you want to say about George Bush, he had been the governor of a big state. He came from a political background, he served in office. He had some experience. Whether or not you agree with the people, these people had tremendous experience. The Trump administration is completely and utterly inept. There's nobody there that knows how to make the government work. As they say, 'The fish stinks from the head.' It's headed up by a guy who not only doesn't understand how government or democracy works, but he has no interest in finding out. You wind up with this tragically flawed, mentally challenged person who has all the power, as much power as anybody can have in the world, and he throws fits. He's a crybaby and he does this and that, and everybody's running around cleaning up after him."

He adds, "If you want to compare it that way, then yes, you miss the decency and the niceness of George W. Bush, but the fact is, he went to war based on lies and it was probably one of the worst foreign policy disasters in the history of the country. And we saw the results of it."

The results: Hundreds of thousands dead, plus untold long-term health consequences, interminable war in the Middle East, and ongoing instability in Iraqi politics. For those who have forgotten or buried the memory of those post-9/11 days, it's worth recalling that the rush to war in Iraq received a final PR boost in the pages of venerated outlets like The New York Times. That Knight Ridder journalists were simply doing their jobs sounds like a low bar to clear, but due diligence in those days went above and beyond what many of their industry colleagues had decided was an acceptable standard. Making a movie about their process, then, requires a similar respect for accuracy, so it's no surprise that Reiner, who also plays John Walcott, Knight Ridder's Washington bureau chief, calls Shock and Awe a docu-drama rather than a fictional film. The film's tagline is "The Truth Matters," after all, so the director focused on ensuring that the facts of the story hewed close to the real-life events, and that essential details found their way into the film.

shock and awe film
James Marsden as Warren Strobel in 'Shock and Awe' | Vertical Entertainment

Whether a movie like this can actually have a political impact? Reiner's not sure.

"I don't know that it will change anything radically," he says. "All I think any film or any documentary can do is hopefully raise awareness and be part of the conversation. I think that's what this can do. If people see it, they're going to say, 'You know something? We got to trust people who are really trying to tell us the truth.' The truth is more important now than ever."

Shock and Awe is Reiner's second political film in the past two years, following 2016's LBJ. The director, who also helmed the Aaron Sorkin-penned films A Few Good Men and The American President, has for years been interested in the American political experience. And his enthusiasm shows no signs of waning.

"Whenever I can find a story that marries that with something that I care about, then I try to do it," he says. "I've made a few political movies, but not that many. It's always interested me, and it was something that was always discussed as a kid growing up. My parents were always very actively involved, and there was always discussions around the kitchen table about it." He adds, "I just like getting things done. To me, you figure out 'What are the best ways to get things done on issues that you care about?'"

Reiner isn't sure whether Shock and Awe or his constant tweeting will get anything done, but he's going to preach to the choir anyway. The 458,000 people who follow him will either agree or disagree with his sentiments on Trump and the GOP. Still, Reiner feels like it's important to keep a discussion going, whether it's on Twitter or via a film.

"I get a lot of people calling me a 'libtard' and saying all these horrible things about me," he says. "I understand that because we are a divided nation, but for the most part, you're getting people who already agree with you. If they retweet you or they like what you said, all I think that can do is keep the people who are interested and see the world the way you do energized to hopefully go out and vote. I always put that down, too. A lot of times, I'll just say 'vote' at the end. To me, it's just about keeping people energized and getting them engaged in going to the poll. I'm not going to change minds. I'm certainly not going to change the minds of people who call me a libtard, but it can energize the people who agree with you."

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Emily Zemler is a freelance writer and journalist based in London. You can follow her on Twitter @emilyzemler.