The shock feels less than shocking and the awe less than awesome in Rob Reiner’s righteously motivated but clunkily executed exposé of media manipulation in the run-up to the Iraq War, a distributor-seeking drama which premiered Friday at the Zurich Film Festival, before the left-leaning director’s last political foray, “LBJ,” has even reached theaters. While its message, literally spelled out in an opening quote about the necessity of a free press in a true democracy, should sing with resonance in today’s divided social climate, the comfortable filmmaking sands its potential relevance down to a polished, unprovocative sheen. Romantic subplots, exposition-heavy conversations and underdeveloped secondary characters further contribute to a remove that’s at odds with the still-raw recent history the film tracks.
With elements of courtroom drama and high-level corruption investigation mixed into the heroes’ journey of four crusading reporters pursuing the truth about WMDs and Iraq when so many others became mouthpieces for the Bush administration’s hidden agenda, it seems Reiner is aiming for a sort of “A Few Good President’s Men.” And everything from the old-fashioned score from Jeff Beal to the unobjectionable cinematography from Barry Markowitz, which relies heavily on gliding tracking shots to inject some dynamism into otherwise staid dialogue scenes, reinforces that impression. But “Shock and Awe” lacks the fire of Reiner’s own 1992 hit, as well as the single-minded intelligence of Alan J. Pakula’s Watergate thriller, so despite its solid craftsmanship, it only sporadically reaches the dramatic heights of either.
A standard helicopter shot across the Capitol Dome establishes that we’re in Washington, DC, where a 2006 Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing is underway. Adam (Luke Tennie) a young wheelchair-bound black soldier stoically endures the apology of the chairman after he asks him to “stand and state your name,” then proceeds to give his testimony. He has a pre-written statement, but in true Hollywood form, puts it away and craves the assembly’s indulgence to speak spontaneously — though this off-the-cuff monologue feels anything but. It does however, provide a lot of factual, numbers-based background, and is not the last time Joey Hartstone’s screenplay will contrive a way of delivering a PowerPoint presentation’s worth of data in the form of rather unlikely speechifying.
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We cut to reporter Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) undergoing combat reporting training when suddenly everyone’s cellphone beeps and we discover the date: Sept. 11, 2001. Amid now-infamous footage of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon building billowing smoke and fire, Landay’s partner Warren Strobel (James Marsden) heads to work at Knight Ridder, an agency that back then syndicated news to 32 newspapers nationwide. The pair are put on the what-happens-next story by their boss John Walcott (the genial onscreen presence that is Reiner himself).
Very soon, however, despite the widespread assumption that Afghanistan will be the target of retaliation, the specter of an attack on Iraq raises its head. Increasingly incredulous, Strobel and Landay, later aided by veteran reporter and Bronze Star recipient Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones), doggedly pursue their sources and continue to issue reports on the fabrication of WMD evidence. These reports are ignored or derided by their peers, with many newspapers refusing to run them and choosing instead to fall in line with the reporting of the New York Times’ Judith Miller, for which the newspaper, and Miller herself, would subsequently apologize.
The underdog story’s momentum is throttled down, though, by the cursory check-ins with Adam’s backstory, and the budding romance between Strobel with his neighbor Lisa, played by Jessica Biel in just one of the film’s thankless wife-and-girlfriend roles. Milla Jovovich plays Landay’s Slavic wife Vlatka, who worries that Landay’s commitment will make his family a target — a stakes-raising suggestion that never actually comes to pass. And Kate Butler’s Nancy Walcott is more or less solely a device to deliver insightful political analysis in the form of conversations with her husband as they do the dishes. “I don’t know if I could do what you do,” whispers Lisa to Warren one night; but what she does when not delivering exposition remains largely a mystery.
Engagement is further hampered by the inelegant introduction of many of the reporters’ sources not by names (presumably still protected) but by their roles, in generic onscreen descriptors like “U.S. Diplomat,” “Intelligence Analyst” and “State Department Official.” Elsewhere the journalists consistently refer to their contacts by codename — “Looney Tunes,” “Loose Nukes” — which contributes to this true story’s paradoxical sense of unreality.
The film’s bolder, more polemical moments, such as the scorn poured on the idea of Sean Hannity being called “the news” or the triumph when a source finally baldly states, “Donald Rumsfeld is lying,” thus feel muted and distant, which typifies the frustrating experience of watching “Shock and Awe”: You may agree vehemently with the firebrand politics, and yet be lulled into complacency by the steadfastly stalwart filmmaking.