In 2003, as the Bush administration prepares to invade Iraq, sceptical journalists question the administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.
It’s curious that, after the success of Spotlight and The Post in the portrayal of journalism and a superb cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Milla Jovovich, Jessica Biel and James Marsden, along with the historically significant backdrop of Shock and Awe, the US assault on Iraq over claims of weapons of mass destruction that, somehow, Rob Reiner manages to turn in such a dull film.
It’s, at best, functional, with no incisive insight or excoriating condemnation of political manipulation and, despite including the events of 9/11, it manages to lack emotion or a sense of the impact on the characters, no matter how close to the subject matter. Things just seem to happen without any investment, which is at odds with how journalists doggedly pursue their stories or how politicians attempt to drive their agenda.
If the film succeeds at anything, it’s the cast. Harrelson and Marsden play off each other well as the journalist Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, whilst Tommy Lee Jones is at his most barbed as Joe Galloway, the reporter whose time in Vietnam would become the film We Were Soldiers. The problems of Shock and Awe are exacerbated by a lack of reason for the viewer to care about the characters, though, and underwritten supporting characters delivering mechanical dialogue that borders upon cliche at times.
The fault doesn’t necessarily lay with Reiner, as he’s shown that he can deliver on political and military drama in the past, admittedly with scripts by the incomparable Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men and The American President, in this case). Hartstone doesn’t capture the necessary intensity of the subject matter, leaving the viewer with a film that moves very quickly yet achieves very little of substance.
Shock and Awe swings from dull sequences of journalists trying to find the truth, to a number of lengthy treatises on the subject matter that doesn’t feel natural in their delivery, to the loves and lives of the lead journalists. It’s more shocking to see that these people existed and are so poorly represented by the dialogue being delivered.
At a time when emotions were running high and America demanded answers, there are few moments of this feeling Shock and Awe. It’s most noticeable outside of the politics, with a young man opting to enlist after the events of 9/11 and the aftermath of his decision and a scene where Strobel and Landay are challenged about their views during a family gathering. This is lost in the blandness of the rest of the film, though.
The use of real news footage is the closest the film gets to an emotional drive, whereas the dialogue of the drama itself, although well delivered, feels lifeless as the film struggles to breathe in its ninety-minute running time. The film finally gets interested as its dying down, before it switches to the real footage of the protagonists being interviewed about the truths that they revealed and the revelation that after nearly two decades, $2 trillion and tens of thousands of dead American soldiers, no weapons of mass destruction were ever found.
A true story with ramifications that are still being felt today, a superb cast, woefully misused, this is a missed opportunity to deliver a timely message on journalistic integrity, the over-reliance of faulty intelligence, lack of understanding and a gung-ho approach to politics, Shock and Awe is a disappointing film that fails to be what it really should have been.
Dir: Rob Reiner
Scr: Joey Hartstone
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, James Marsden, Milla Jovovich, Jessica Biel, Rob Reiner
DOP: Barry Markowitz
Runtime: 90 mins
Shock and Awe is available on home media now.