Rob Reiner has acted in, written, produced, and directed almost every genre of film and TV show, but his wheelhouse is humane, sharply observational, and subtly unconventional comedy. He was deeply involved in at least three classic comedies: his own This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride and Norman Lear’s All in the Family, in which Reiner played Michael “Meathead” Stivic, the liberal son-in-law of Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker.
Another side of Reiner, his commitment to social justice and democratic values, is front and center in his latest directorial effort, Shock and Awe. Reiner also stars in the film as real-life Knight Ridder editor John Walcott. Shock and Awe shows how two of Walcott’s reporters, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, exposed the lies behind the Bush administration’s rush to war with Iraq after 9/11—and how their stories were drowned out by a tsunami of press coverage that unquestioningly amplified the White House’s official story. The film is fierce in telling the history of the leadup to war and at capturing the journalists’ irreverent patter and the smug prevarications of the Bush administration’s cabinet members.
I recently talked to Reiner about the real source of fake news, the surprising new urgency that Shock and Awe took on after the 2016 election, and why he wanted to change his name when he was eight years old.
You’ve taken on an important subject with this film.
The last couple days of shooting were when Donald Trump was elected. It was weird because we were making a movie, basically, to talk about how important it is for a free and independent press to be strong. Like the Tommy Lee Jones character [journalist Joseph L. Galloway] says: “When the government fucks up, the soldiers pay the price.” We wanted to show that, if the press doesn’t do their due diligence, you can have dire consequences. We never even thought in terms of what has occurred since, which is the country is potentially in a worse place in terms of whether the democracy even survives. All of a sudden there’s a different urgency, a different relevancy to the film.
Most films about the importance of the press are about reporters who change the world by revealing the truth. There are reporters in your film who unearth the truth, but their stories get drowned out by a megaphone of fake news—and the fake news is generated by our own government.
Right. And that’s what we have right now. The difference between then and now is the trauma of 9/11. People were frightened, and they didn’t want to seem unpatriotic. But now, the real press is being threatened by an administration that’s backed up by what’s essentially state-run media. And it’s not like a small section of the country. We’re talking about Fox and Sinclair and Breitbart and Alex Jones reaching about 40 percent of the country that’s cemented in this alternate reality, the alternate facts. That’s the real fake news. And the people that are working so hard to get to the truth are being called the enemy of the people and the fake news.
You’ve been a social activist for pretty much your whole adult life, but you haven’t made or appeared in a lot of overtly political movies or TV shows.
Well, All in the Family was as political as you can get.
It was. But if you look at your long list of credits, not many of them are that kind of thing.
The only ones are Ghosts of Mississippi, possibly A Few Good Men, and The American President and LBJ.
Right. So I’m wondering what made you decide to go so explicitly political with this film, when that’s not generally the direction you’ve gone in.
The idea for this happened in 2003. I wanted to make a film about how we got into Iraq, because I was of draft age during the Vietnam War and I just couldn’t believe that, within my own lifetime, we were going to be going to war again based on lies. I really wanted to make the film because I felt there had been good films about Vietnam, there had been good films about World War II, and there had been a couple of good films about Iraq, but none of them dealt with, to me, the central issue, which was: Why the hell were we there? Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was really good, and American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s movie. But they didn’t address the central question.
When [Bush administration officials] started talking about Iraq very shortly after 9/11, I thought, “Oh my god, what are they doing here?” They started saying there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and I said, “What are you talking about? The guy is an enemy of Bin Laden!” And then they started talking about weapons of mass destruction and aluminum tubes, and it’s like, nah, that can’t be it. The U.N.’s weapons inspector, Hans Blix, was there, and he was reporting back every couple of weeks and saying, “I didn’t find anything.” The only thing they had to go with is that 9/11 had frightened the whole country. It’s classic propaganda playbook. You take the public’s fear and you say, “This is what’s happening and we’re going to fix it. We’re going to make it right.” That’s what authoritarians do all the time.
I wanted to make a movie about how we wind up going to war when there’s no basis for it. The initial idea was to do it as a satire, like a Dr. Strangelove. I couldn’t get a script that I liked. Then I worked on it as a dramatic idea and I couldn’t get that to work. Then, years later, I see this documentary by Bill Moyers and he’s got this story about these four journalists who basically came to the same conclusion I had come to, and I never knew about these guys! I had never read any of their articles. I then saw another documentary about a kid who had been part of a military family; everybody had served and when we got attacked he wanted to go fight in Afghanistan and he got sent there and the next thing he knew he was being shipped to Iraq, and then within three weeks his transport hits an IED and he loses the use of his leg. So I said, “That’s it!” Tell a story about the false reasons to go to war, and the consequences. People get killed for no good reason.
The dialogue and interplay between the reporters feels very realistic. How did you come up with that?
They were on the set the whole time. They looked at every single draft of the screenplay. They were intimately involved with everything. And that speech that I give in the newsroom, when the reporters are starting to doubt themselves, Walcott told me he actually gave the real reporters that speech. He wrote it down as he said it, and I did it that day.
He seemed like such an ideal journalist and boss. I was hoping that part of the film was true to life.
Yeah. [The reporters] gave him a lot of credit. He had a spine of steel. Whenever they doubted things, he kept them going.
I’m guessing that Carl Reiner was inspiring but also a little intimidating as a father, since he blazed a shining path in the same direction you wound up taking yourself, both as a writer-director and as an advocate for social justice. Is there something in particular that stands out when you think of how he influenced you as a kid?
Well, I don’t remember this, but they tell me that I did this when I was, like, eight years old. I went up to my parents and I said, “I want to change my name.” My father thought, “Oh, this poor kid, he’s feeling the pressure of being Carl Reiner’s son.” The long shadow and all that. So he said, “What do you want to change your name to?” And I said, “Carl.” [laughs] I wanted to be like him. I loved him and I looked up to him. He set a very good example.
Yeah, no kidding. I just listened to him on a podcast the other day, and I couldn’t believe he’s in his mid-90s. He didn’t miss a beat. He’s really good on Twitter too.
I know. He’s amazing. He just did this documentary for HBO. He says he gets up in the morning and “I read the obits. If I’m not in it, I eat breakfast.” It’s a mutual pride society, the two of us. We’re both proud of each other.
Speaking of fathers and sons, you participated in a film about drug addiction, Being Charlie, with your son, Nick, who struggled with addiction in his teens. As a society, do you think we are getting any better at preventing and treating addiction? We’re certainly talking about it more sympathetically, now that more white kids are affected by it.
I don’t think we’re getting any better. I think the drug problem has been getting worse, but I don’t think we’ve found a way to deal with it. It’s a cottage industry, these rehab places, and the recidivism rate is really high. They’re all based on AA, and AA is not scientific. It works for some people, and I wouldn’t take it away from the ones it works for, but it’s only five to 10 percent of them. I think ultimately it comes down to someone who can treat the underlying issues that cause somebody to self-medicate, and also examine the brain chemistry to see if there’s something that can be done from a psychopharmacological perspective.
I have to ask about Spinal Tap, because it’s one of my favorite movies.
Oh, yeah, thanks. Well, you know, it’s a fine line between stupid and clever. [both laugh]
And you never crossed it. Did you guys create the mockumentary genre with Spinal Tap, or were you just early adopters?
This was the first. We had this idea to make fun of rock-n’-roll documentaries. We figured this was the way to tell this story. The whole thing was improvised. When we sat down to write it, we realized there’s no way we can communicate in script form what this thing is ultimately going to be. It had to have this documentary feel. I convinced the guy who was going to give us the money for the film: Just give us some money and we’ll go make some of the film and I’ll show you what it’s going to be. So, we did that and then he said “Nah, I don’t want this.” [laughs] It took years to get all the financing and everything to put it together. And then we put it out and at the first screening people came up to me and said, “Why would you make a movie about a band that nobody’s ever heard of, and one that’s so bad?” Anyway.
Was it fun to make?
Oh, yeah. It was a ball. Although I hired this cameraman who had shot a lot of rock and roll documentaries. As a matter of fact, he was at Altamont, that very famous concert with the Rolling Stones—
Where the Hells Angels killed someone.
Yeah. And he said to me, at one point, “What’s funny about this? This is exactly what they do. There’s nothing funny here.”