Shock and Awe exists exclusively to exploit a market for journalism movies whittled down into easily digestible, unchallenging chunks, à la James Vanderbilt’s 2015 clunker Truth. This heavy-handed pat on the back for the only reporters who “got it right” in terms of Bush’s claims of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction comes about fifteen years too late. The chief accomplishment of Rob Reiner’s sanctimonious after school special is its ability to make an hour and a half feel like an eternity.
We follow Knight-Ridder investigative reporters Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (James Marsden), as well as their determined editor John Walcott (Reiner), as they probe the motivation behind the George W. Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. As they ask the hard-hitting questions their colleagues were perfectly content to ignore, they quickly discover the lengths to which the government will go in order to justify their own selfish pursuits. This meaty testimony to the triumphs of the free press is boiled down to under 90 minutes, sacrificing a significant degree of its dramatic potency.
Reiner’s impressive roster of talent is packed to the brim with seasoned performers, but they are all made to chew the scenery like it’s Hubba Bubba. There’s absolutely no room for levity – or even tonal ambiguity, for that matter – in Joey Hartstone’s pompous and immodest script, which takes itself far too seriously to be affecting. Shock and Awe’s only intriguing ideas are lifted directly from other films about journalism, and it doesn’t even have the decency to steal from obscure references. Aside from character names and thirty-year time jump, this could almost qualify as a shoddy remake of All the President’s Men.
The film primarily consists of its characters standing around and explaining each and every step in their thought process. While these reporters were correct in their convictions – and their fight was an undeniably important one for the American public – it is rarely feels even remotely cinematic here, no matter how loud the overbearing score behind them can often be. This isn’t a subtle movie, and it feels the compulsory need to walk its viewers through even the most basic ideological building blocks. Reiner has absolutely no faith in his audience’s ability to connect any two points, so he spoonfeeds them his hokey message time and time again. Gumshoe journalism, as crucial as it may be to any functioning society, isn’t inherently exciting to watch on the big screen. It takes a bit of artistic finesse to make it interesting, but Reiner is never willing to put in the legwork to make that happen.
Shock and Awe’s most egregious offense is simply how shallow and commonplace it feels. As a result, it never finds any narrative traction or emotional engagement. This ilk of movies is to a certain generation what Transformers is to their children: soulless pandering to a meticulously targeted demographic who will gladly shell out a few bucks for anything that has encompassed the right few buzzwords. Landay’s and Strobel’s is an important story about the power of journalism, and one that deserves a much better movie.