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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 19 August 2018

Film review: The docudrama format fails ‘Shock and Awe’, but it’s a film that deserves to be seen

Reiner delivers a passable piece of political commentary, but I wanted it to be great

Shock and Awe. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment
Shock and Awe. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment

Shock and Awe

Director: Rob Reimner

Starring: Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Tommy Lee Jones, Rob Reiner

Two stars

In 2003, the United States, along with its ally the United Kingdom and token forces from Australia and Poland invaded Iraq on the pretext that Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and was even working on a nuclear programme. What happened next is well-documented.

There were no weapons of mass destruction, the whole pretext for war was false, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died, Isis sprung up in the bandit country left in the invasion’s wake, and the entire Middle East was destabilised by the invasion. The events can be directly linked to wars that continue in the region to this day, and the legacies of US president George W Bush and his main cheerleader, UK prime minister Tony Blair, were permanently scarred, with some even demanding they should stand trial for war crimes.

What you might not have known is that even before the invasion, a team of journalists from the Washington bureau of US publisher Knight Ridder had successfully debunked the WMD theories, proved that the decision to go to war was taken long before any evidence or intelligence assessments were provided, and received testimony that individuals at the very top of the White House hierarchy were wilfully lying to the public to justify the pre-­determined war.

If you didn’t already know that, don’t be too hard on yourself. Knight Ridder was, at the time, the US’s second-biggest newspaper publisher with 32 newspapers all over the countryThe Miami Herald and The Philadelphia Inquirer were among its best-known titles.

But many of Knight Ridder’s own editors wouldn’t even publish the team’s work among a prevailing mood of jingoism, and the rest of the mainstream media simply wasn’t interested in going against the government’s policy.

Now, 15-years later, Rob Reiner finally tells their story in Shock and Awe. Woody Harrelson and James Marsden are lead reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, Tommy Lee Jones is the decorated, but jaded war veteran and reporter Joe Galloway, and Reiner plays bureau chief John Walcott.

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The movie mixes archive footage with live action drama to tell this vital story in a docudrama style, but the genre choice perhaps sells the story a little short. The central characters are never really fully rounded out, serving simply as a narrative device to carry us from one piece of archive footage to the next. When we do see moments of characterisation, such as Landay on a first date or the reporters at a family barbecue, it can feel a little tokenistic and unnecessary.

Reiner’s problem here, too, is that in a post-Spotlight world, the bar for journalism procedural drama has been set impossibly high. It would be hard enough to compete in a straight drama, but when your dramatic characters seem to only really exist as a bridge between footage clips it’s impossible.

The archive footage, meanwhile, damning enough in its own right, seems to lose some of its power by being constantly interrupted by the day-to-day lives of our heroes. You can’t help feeling that Reiner would have been better off deciding before he started to make either a drama or a documentary. In the end, we find ourselves with both a stellar cast who are largely wasted on a throwaway script, and a pile of ­meticulously researched archive footage which is undermined by nervous first dates and family rows.

The film deserves to be seen. The story it tells is simply too important to be ignored for another 15 years, particularly in the era of growing fake news. You just find yourself wishing that Reiner had turned in a truly great film to do justice to the subject matter, and he didn’t. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not great. Where I’d hoped Reiner could turn in the Spinal Tap of hard-hitting political commentary, he simply turned in the Shock and Awe of hard-hitting political commentary.

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