WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A group of journalists covering George Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq in 2003 is skeptical of the president’s claim that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
I have a certain dislike for American films about journalists and the media. Having studied and worked in the field for a while, I always find them a little self-obsessed, obnoxious and exuding a warped sense of superiority that I don’t think South African media have as much of.
Shock and Awe follows a similar vein - a big news outlet who is framed as the shining warriors of truth amid a flurry of falsified facts spread by the Bush administration. The story itself is interesting, perhaps more from an American perspective than a South African one, but in terms of actual ‘shock and awe’ its delivery is quite lukewarm. This is especially a pity when you’ve got such a great cast and director to work with.
The story follows the reporters of Knight Ridder during the fallout of the 9/11 attack and the Bush administration’s push to invade Iraq. While many major outlets gave support to the cause and the mission to find Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Knight Ridder’s sources had another story - one that proved to be true when it was too late.
It’s a little sad to see a film from director Rob Reiner (A Few Good Men, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally) have such a placid feel to it. Unlike other films ‘based on a true story’, Shock and Awe focused so much on the facts that Reiner kind of forgot the human element that would have sold the story. There are attempts to frame the two main reporters - played by Woody Harrelson and James Marsden - as people with their own lives beyond their work, but these parts feel a little forced, despite having such brilliant actors. Reiner himself is also in the film, playing the hard-nosed editor that keeps pushing for facts, as well as Tommy Lee Jones, but the film kept having that Lifetime TV movie feel to it (the poster honestly screams TV movie) instead of a hard-hitting cinematic drama.
Despite the delivery, the contents of the story remain interesting. I was a little too young to really grasp much of what was conspiring in the US at the time, but since then understand how much of a screwup the Iraq invasion was. What I didn’t know was how much the US mainstream media helped shape the narrative around the hunt for the WMDs that were never found, and that Knight Ridder’s attempts to highlight the motives behind these claims was actually not the popular opinion in news.
The way they shaped their story despite hectic criticism even from family members is quite inspirational, and according to articles written about them, it’s not exaggerated when they are shown to have been one of the only news outlets to not take what the administration was saying at face value. What lacked perhaps in a cinematic sense was a way to personify this antagonism. They faced up against being ignored by everyone, but it would have helped if there was a character that could help cement that opposition, either in the form of a politician or reporter from another outlet. Mostly you just see them fighting against the wind, and while it may have been accurate, it didn’t make for exciting watching.
Shock and Awe has a worthwhile story to tell (if you’re interested in the Bush-era) and it doesn’t play around with the facts, using real news footage to shape the story, but perhaps a little tweaking would have helped to just make the film less of a history lesson and more an engaging look at ethics and truth for a modern audience, especially in the era of fake news.