Rob Reiner on telling the real story of the Iraq War in Shock and Awe

The film is a fictionalised account of the only band of journalists who questioned the US government’s assertion that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction

James Marsden and Woody Harrelson in Shock and Awe. Courtesy Zurich Film Festival
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It was anger that fuelled director Rob Reiner to make Shock And Awe. "Being of draft age during the time of the Vietnam war," he tells me, after the world premiere of his new film at Zurich Film Festival. "I never thought that in my lifetime America would go to war again on a premise based on lies."

The 70-year-old director, best known for the classics When Harry Met Sally..., Misery, Stand by Me and This is Spinal Tap, had seen films about the Iraq War that he admired – Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Clint Eastwood's American Sniper – but felt they did not get to the heart of the matter. "I thought the real story of the Iraq War was how we got into it," he says.

He wasn't sure how to tell that story, until one day he sat down to watch Bill Moyer's documentary Buying the War, which eulogised the reporting of John Walcott, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of Knight Ridder, an American media company that specialised in newspaper and internet publishing, that, prior to 2006, was the second-largest newspaper publisher in the United States, with 32 daily editions under its umbrella.

Shock and Awe is a fictionalised account of the only band of journalists who questioned the US government's assertion in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001 that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that he was aligned with Al Qaeda.

The drama stars Woody Harrelson and James Marsden as the inquisitive Knight Ridder journalists Landay and Strobel. While all other newspapers, television stations and news groups were reporting the line that the Bush administration was telling them about Iraq's nuclear weapons arsenal and Saddam Hussein's ability to use them at face value, these reporters set about questioning the so-called evidence. They concluded there was no factual basis in these claims.

The resulting film is reminiscent of All The President's Men and the recent Oscar-winner Spotlight in the way that it celebrates the work of a free and diligent press. Much maligned for their views at the time, the reporters remained certain in their beliefs and continued to use journalistic best practice. They ignored the fake news spread by the US government.

For Reiner, it's the work of journalists and not the political aspect of Shock and Awe that is the oxygen of the film. "The only way we are going to preserve democracy is to have an informed public," he says.

"The only way we are going to have an informed public is to have a free and independent media and have some mechanism to weed out fake news."

He's not quite sure what shape that mechanism would take, although he mentions he would like to see some sort of regulation, or more effort by global social media companies, to ensure that news messages being dispersed on their platforms are indeed fact-checked.

The director still cannot believe the naïveté of American politicians in believing they could effect change by installing a democracy in Iraq, saying: "You had a number of neocons who believed that if you could put another western-style democracy ... in the Middle East, it would somehow profligate and Israel would be protected. But how do you think that is going to happen in an area like Iraq, and I used to make the joke, haven't they seen Lawrence of Arabia? If they had, they would have known that removing Saddam Hussein would unleash a 1,400-year-old sectarian war."

Reiner, the son of an actress and film director, first came to prominence in the 1970s playing Michael Stivic in All in the Family, the hit CBS series that was inspired by the BBC television show Till Death Us Do Part. He won two Emmys for his performances, in 1974 and 1978, and was nominated for five Golden Globes.

Even though he is now best known as a director, Reiner has never stopped acting, appearing from time to time in the popular television show New Girl;  he has also had parts in The First Wives Club, Primary Colors and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Rather begrudgingly, he had to give himself the role of newspaper editor (John) Walcott in Shock and Awe – Alec Baldwin pulled out of the film the day before shooting was about to commence. But it's his directorial efforts for which he will be remembered. With hindsight, it's easy to think of Reiner's early directorial career as being a string of successes, but films that have aged well such as his mockumentary debut This is Spinal Tap (1984) and fantasy adventure The Princess Bride (1987) fared badly at the box-office. Now Reiner can regale at how Tesla founder Elon Musk is such a fan of Spinal Tap, that in a range of his cars the sound system volume goes up to Spinal Tap's 11.

Reiner's big early success was the Stephen King adaptation Stand by Me in 1986, which began a series of collaborations between the director and the horror writer that resulted in Reiner naming his production company Castle Rock after the fictional town used by King in his books.

This friendship has led King to sell several options of his books to Reiner for just US$1, including Misery, although the director doesn't mention what the back-end deal was for King on these movies.

However, the film for which he will be forever remembered is When Harry Met Sally… (1989), one of the all-time great romantic comedies. Reiner is amused that he gave his own mother, who was an extra in the film, one of the great movie punch lines: "I'll have what she's having" in the scene in Katz's Delicatessen in which Meg Ryan simulates having an orgasm. Reiner guffaws: "In movie history, there is Clark Gable and there is Eileen Reiner."

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - SEPTEMBER 30: Director Rob Reiner speaks at the 'Shock and Awe' press conference during the 13th Zurich Film Festival on September 30, 2017 in Zurich, Switzerland. The Zurich Film Festival 2017 will take place from September 28 until October 8. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

The director may be best known for his heartwarming movies but he has also been unafraid to wear politics on his sleeve, something he admits has harmed his own Hollywood career.

"The minute I made The American President [in 1995], a lot of people who were fans of mine disappeared, and there are a lot of people now who are not happy with the way I think. I do what I have to do and I keep at it.

"I think it's a good thing to show courage in Hollywood, but it can also be damaging."

Aaron Sorkin scripted The American President starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, which follows attempts to pass an environmental bill as a way to highlight the vagaries of US government. Last year, Reiner released LBJ, a film about the upheaval faced by president Lyndon B Johnson as he moves into the White House after John F Kennedy's assassination.

Reiner almost moved into politics himself. He was mooted as a potential candidate to stand against Arnold Schwarzenegger in the race to be governor of California in 2008. He says he no longer harbours a desire for public office and is happy with the work he's doing, to effect change through lobbying.

For example, he and his wife and producing partner Michelle Reiner have helped to launch, a website that seeks to uncover Russian government attempts to influence elections and bring about its "goal to destabilise democracies, break up Nato and the European Union," as Reiner sees it.

But with his new film Shock and Awe, he has more limited ambitions. The director tells me: "A film cannot do much to change things. All a film can do is be part of the dialogue."


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