Rob Reiner’s Shock and Awe exemplifies the most aggravating tendencies of so many well-meaning Hollywood political dramas. While it aims for the sly subtleties and effortless intelligence of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, this paean to the importance and nobility of a free and honest press ultimately aligns itself with the blunt, self-righteous cinema of Stanley Kramer.
Following newspaper company Knight Ridder’s political news coverage in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Shock and Awe attempts to speak truth to power. But it does so in such a patronizing way, viewing history through a 20/20 lens, that most of the good will it earns in taking the United States government to task for its myriad wrongdoings is lost in a pervasive cloud of smugness that seeps into nearly every scene. In a world of many shades, Shock and Awe sees only in black and white, never moving beyond puerile notions of good and evil for fear of implicating politicians on both sides of the aisle for their proliferation of the military industrial complex.
The ever-congenial Reiner plays John Walcott, Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau chief, as the calm, paternal center of the storm, spouting out choice bits of homespun wisdom such as “When the government says something, you only have one question to ask: Is it true?” At his side are two experienced correspondents, Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (James Marsden), who discover the American government’s preemptive plans to invade Iraq and later unearth evidence that proved the Bush administration knew all along that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
But when these two men aren’t blatantly spouting exposition or platitudes, they’re left dumbfounded at how little the truth matters to politicians and the mainstream media alike. Even in the early 2000s, it’s a stretch to believe two veteran political writers could be so naïve. But when both Landay and Strobel treat their discovery that then-Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly lied to the American public as an earth-shattering revelation, it becomes clear that Shock and Awe is more concerned with feigning shock about the fact that corruption could dare exist in Washington D.C. than with even attempting to objectively represent the shady nature of politicking in our nation’s capital.
In placing Landay and Strobel’s meticulous and impartial investigative reporting in opposition to that of papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, which merely regurgitated the lies that George W. Bush, Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld sold them, Reiner presents the truth itself as the film’s underdog. But there’s little effort here to grapple with the deeper implications of the increasingly malleable nature of truth which allows politicians and the press to morph and hide facts in order to sell a narrative. Instead, the film rests on broad, sweeping proclamations about the importance of factual reporting and takes snide and easy, albeit deserving, swipes at the elected officials who pushed for the Iraq invasion at all costs.