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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Rob Reiner on how to speak truth to power in the era of fake news

In his latest film ‘Shock and Awe tells the story of journalists who faced backlash for reporting

Rob Reiner has produces, directs and acts in ‘Shock and Awe’. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment
Rob Reiner has produces, directs and acts in ‘Shock and Awe’. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment

Rob Reiner won plenty of friends in the region when he gave his support to a petition by Arab Filmmakers, led by Annemarie Jacir, against American President Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

Reiner told The National then: “Right now, we’ve got a president who says all Muslims should be banned from the country. We’ve got a president who says we should put a wall on our southern border to keep out rapists. We’ve got a president who is supporting a man who is accused of child molestation [former Senate candidate Roy Moore, who last weekend fell victim to Sacha Baron ­Cohen’s new show when the satirist subjected him to a ‘paedophile detector’].

“We’ve got a president who is attacking the law enforcement agencies and the media, all the outlets that carry out checks and balances on those in power. We’ve got a president who is turning his back on science and doesn’t acknowledge global warming.”

Reiner continued: “He has no concept of geopolitical events or how things are interconnected. There was no consideration that went into this decision, no outreach to allies in the Arab world, or even the non-Arab world to see what the impact of something like this is. It’s crazy, just crazy. All of our allies in the Arab world and even Europe have said that this is just a knuckle-headed move.”

Shock and Awe

With his latest movie Shock and Awe in cinemas this weekend, Reiner could be about to endear himself to audiences in the region even further. The film tells the true story of a team of Knight Ridder reporters who, in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, were the only members of the United States mainstream media to buck the wave of nationalism sweeping the country, and instead report on how the most powerful members of the US government were involved in ignoring, fabricating, and even lying about evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the reasons for the war.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that deserves to be told, though I wonder why it’s taken Reiner 15 years to finally tell it: “I wanted to make this movie right after the invasion of Iraq,” Reiner says. “But I don’t think I could have done that. You had to be so careful around that time as the national mood was a strange one. I was draft age during Vietnem and I knew then that we entered into that war on a false basis – the Gulf of Tonkin resolution – and I couldn’t believe we were going to war based totally on lies twice in my lifetime, but how do you talk about that in such a highly charged atmosphere?

It was years later when Reiner found out about the work of Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel and their Knight Ridder colleagues, and the platform to tell his story was in place: “I found out about these journalists. They debunked everything. They published everything at the time, but nobody listened to them. I knew everything was wrong, they’d shown everything was wrong, but I knew nothing about them,” he explains. “Everyone was on war-­footing. If you said something against the war, you were somehow unpatriotic. I couldn’t have made this film then, or at least shown it. Phil Donahue was one of few major personalities to come out against the war, and he was taken off air. It just made no sense to me. The war, the response. None of it made any sense,” Reiner adds.

'Idiots in charge'

Both on screen and in person, he comes across as a cuddly grandpa type of character – even his character in Shock and Awe is a fatherly editor guiding his young journalist apprentices through the White House maze – Tommy Lee Jones takes the stock role of grizzled old hack instead. There’s little room for cuddliness when he talks about government administrations, however. Just as he had the Trump White House in his sights back in December, he pulls no punches when talking about the Bush administration that took the US to war back in 2003: “These idiots we had in-charge, who had obviously never read history, thought that by invading Iraq we could have this Israel-friendly, western-style democracy in the Middle East. They evidently hadn’t heard of the Sunni/Shia split, the relations with Israel in the region, the fact that all these countries were just arbitrary constructs of the British and the French when they divided their empires up after the war,” he rails. “They seemingly hadn’t read any history of the region, ever, and everyone voted for this brilliant idea. John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, all voted to give Bush the authorisation to go to war, and Bush had wanted to go to war with Iraq forever, even though the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by people operating in Afghanistan.”

He adds: “It is a very tough reckoning to realise that America was wrong. But this film is all about the importance of the truth and getting the truth out.”

New York Times apology

The Knight Ridder team, although at the time vilified by “patriots” even among their own friends and families, and mocked by other media, were, of course, eventually proved entirely correct. The New York Times even apologised for its own irresponsible reporting in a famous editorial from 2004. Reiner, however, seems unconvinced things have changed too much since: “Certainly most of the mainstream journalists did not ask those tough questions in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and I would submit that they didn’t ask those same questions of Donald Trump during the presidential campaign either,” he asserts.

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Read more:

Diff 2017: President Trump's Jerusalem decision hangs heavy over opening weekend

War on the big screen: How do we see the region's conflicts?

Annoying Hollywood Middle Eastern clichés: Arab filmmakers speak out

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Varied output

Reiner speaks with knowledge, passion, and a tangible, but well-controlled anger when he’s on the topic of the Iraq War. It’s a testament to the breadth of the director’s abilities that, when he’s not in activist mode, he is also responsible for some of the most memorable comedies of recent decades, including When Harry Met Sally, and the incomparable rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. By way of lightening the mood, I ask Reiner about his memories of working on the latter film, which was last year voted the 9th greatest comedy of all time in the BBC’s annual critics’ poll.

For a moment, Reiner drifts away from events in Iraq: “I loved working on that movie so much,” he says. “It was like the weirdest case of life imitating art. Did you know that Black Sabbath accused us of stealing their idea with the whole Stonehenge set thing [the fictional band toured with a mock Stonehenge set]? They actually went on tour with a Stonehenge set, and our film came out two weeks later. They literally thought we’d developed, written, shot, post-­produced, marketed, this film in two weeks just to steal their idea. We’d spent two years making it, by the way. It proved that our idea of how dumb rock bands can be is true.”

It doesn’t take Reiner long to return to his current cause celebre, however: “Not only that, but it also proved that rock bands really can be that dumb and pretentious. It’s a lot like the reasons for the Iraq War. You couldn’t make it up.”

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