Rob Reiner's new movie "Shock and Awe" holds the media's feet to the fire for its reporting failures in the days before the United States' 2003 invasion of Iraq. It's currently available on demand for DIRECTV satellite customers and will be in theaters this Friday July 13th.
The movie follows Knight-Ridder journalists Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel (played by Woody Harrelson and James Marsden), their editor John Walcott (Reiner himself) and legend Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones) as they try (and fail) to confirm the Bush administration's reasons for going to work with Iraq.
Spoiler alert: The United States military didn't find any WMDs after we invaded Iraq and we're still entangled there today. Does that make the war a mistake? Reiner thinks so and he wants to credit the only journalists who got the story right.
Reiner grew up in a Hollywood family. His father Carl created "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and went on to direct Steve Martin in "The Jerk" and "The Man With Two Brains." Rob started acting as a teenager with appearances on shows like "Gomer Pyle: USMC," "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Partridge Family" before landing a groundbreaking (and Emmy-winning) role as Mike "Meathead" Stivic on the legendary series "All in the Family."
He broke into directing with 1985's mock dockumentary "This is Spinal Tap," in which he also plays filmmaker Marty DiBergi. He went on to direct some of the most beloved movies of the '80s and 90s: "Stand by Me," "The Princess Bride," "When Harry Met Sally," "Misery," "A Few Good Men" and "The American President."
Recently, he's been working independently and making modestly-budgeted movies that allow him to tell the stories he wants to share. He recently directed Woody Harrelson in "LBJ," a biopic that focused more on the president's domestic policy successes than the war in Vietnam.
Reiner the director can still attract top talent: A cast that includes Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Tommy Lee Jones, Jessica Biel, Milla Jovovich and Richard Schiff suggests a big-budget production, but "Shock and Awe" is unapologetically independent in spirit and production value. It plays like an urgently scribbled editorial that aims to grab your attention as you read the morning paper instead of an hefty book that aims to be the official history of some bygone era.
Rob Reiner took time to speak with us about patriotism, why he made this movie and what he thinks the media's job should be in a democracy. It's the kind of thoughtful conversation that's miles away from the latest Twitter storm.
Tell us about "Shock and Awe." What inspired you to make a movie like this one?
I made the movie because I felt that the American people were not getting the truth in the leadup to the War in Iraq. Everybody was wrapped up, and rightly so, in what happened during 9/11. But the press was did not want to look unpatriotic, so they didn’t do what they normally do, which is to be skeptical.
We mentioned this in the movie. If the government says something, the press has only one question to ask: Is it true? I felt that the American press had not gotten to the truth as to why we were going to War in Iraq.
I came upon the story of these four journalists from Knight Ridder News, who basically got every single story right in the runup to the war. Unfortunately, the truth that they uncovered could never break through. It never got through to the public.
The Knight Ridder journalists were able to correctly say that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, that the aluminum tubes that they discovered could not be used to enrich uranium, and that there was no clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction. And yet, we wound up going to war anyway.
I wanted to tell the story of how important it is for the American press to get it right because when they don’t get it right, the consequences can be horrible. It's true in the case of Iraq, and also in the case of what happened during the Vietnam War, which I also thought we fought based on a lie.
That’s why I told the story, because nobody should have to go to war based on a lie. There should always be a real reason why young people are asked to put their lives on the line. It better be based on something that’s honest and true and real.
A lot of people think we should've learned those lessons in Vietnam. The Iraq War was only a generation after Vietnam. The media should have learned a lot of hard lessons from how they covered the conflict in Southeast Asia. Why do you think they forgot those lessons so quickly?
Back in the days of Vietnam, the country was caught up in a fervor of communism supposedly taking over the world. When I was a kid, I remember doing these duck and cover drills, where we had to jump under our desks for fear of a nuclear bomb hitting. That was a big fear that spread throughout our country and throughout the world. The idea that there was a country that was going to be turning communist at the time was scary to a lot of people.
Yet, half the country didn’t believe that there was going to be this domino theory if one country went communist. We were obviously proven right because it didn’t work out that way.
Vietnam fought on the side of the Americans during the second World War. And we promised them after the second World War that they would get their independence from the French. When we realized that they might become a communist country, we didn’t allow a free election to happen and it forced the north to eventually invade the south.
But we didn’t get into it until the lie of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution came into play, where there was supposedly an American ship that was sunk in the Gulf of Tonkin. The point is, we were swept up in this fear of communism.
After 9/11, I think we were swept up in the fear of Islamic terrorism pervading our country. So it’s understandable why people would get swept up in that fear, but the American press has to be at arm’s length with all that. They have to be dispassionate. They have to look at things through a cynical eye and a skeptical eye to get to the truth. So we saw it happen twice in my lifetime and I couldn’t believe that it was happening twice in my lifetime.
Now we’re at a point where we’re even more divided than we ever have been. There are two factions of mainstream media that are putting out completely different narratives and it’s harder than ever now to break through with something that is true. So it’s a cautionary tale to say that unless we have an honest and free and open press that is able to get to the truth, democracy will not survive. That’s really what the film is about.
"Shock and Awe" is bookended by the story of one soldier’s experiences in Iraq, something that brings home the consequences of those decisions.
I saw a documentary about a soldier who signed up right after 9/11. He was sent to Afghanistan to fight against the influences of the Taliban, which allowed Al Qaeda to exist inside of Afghanistan.
The mission was to find the Taliban and take out Osama Bin Laden. That didn’t happen. The next thing he knows, he's being transferred to Iraq. He didn’t understand why, because Iraq had not attacked us. He's literally in Iraq for less than a week when his transport gets hit by an IED and he loses the use of his legs for the rest of his life. He becomes an anti-Iraq War guy. He wasn’t to begin with. He came from a military family, everybody had served in his family.
I thought, well, that’s a story I need to tell along with the newspaper story, because you need to see the consequences of not getting the truth out to the American people before we do something as grave as invading another country.
There seems to an urgency as to the way this film was made. It’s certainly not a big Hollywood production.
No, that’s for sure.
How do you go about getting a movie like this funded?
It’s almost impossible. These are the kind of films that Hollywood doesn’t want to make. The only way to get them financed is through independent financing and finding people who are willing to step up and be part of something that they feel is important. I've been trying to get this film off the ground in some form or another since 2003, when I saw this happening and couldn’t believe that it was happening again.
There's a line in the film where one of the journalists says that as we started marching towards War in Iraq, he felt like a father watching his child run out into the street and feeling helpless to save him from being hit by the oncoming truck.
That’s the way I felt and a lot of people felt. We could see what was going to happen, we knew this was not going to be a cakewalk, as it was described by the administration, and that we would be greeted as liberators and that the war would pay for itself and all the other lies that were told to us. We knew that this was going to be a bloody experience.
It wasn’t until recently that I was able to put together a version of the movie that was able to find some financing here and there. Actually my wife and I, who are two of the producers, put our own money into it because we thought it was important that people understand how critical it is that American people get told the truth. Good policy cannot come out of lies. It just can’t.
You’ve been very unapologetic about your political beliefs through your whole career. There is certainly a faction of people who don’t think that way you express your belief is patriotic.
Well, I can understand that. Over half the country doesn’t agree with me and I totally understand that, but I think there is nothing more patriotic than making sure that before young people are sent into harm’s way, that they're sent there for the right reasons. To me that is the most patriotic thing you can do, which is to make sure that the American flag stands for something that’s right and just, and not just to try to convince people of our democratic way of life at the point of a gun.
Well, an interesting counterpoint is that you made "A Few Good Men," one of the most beloved movies in the military community.
Well, the thing about "A Few Good Men" is that when we first had the script and we first started to make it, there was a lot of pushback from the military because they felt that we were showing the Marine Corps in a bad light.
First of all, the movie was based on a true story that actually happened down in Guantanamo Bay. But I tried to impress on everybody, and particularly the commandant of the Marine Corps, that this showed the military in a very good light because it said that if somebody breaks the military code of justice, that they’ll be held accountable.
That showed that the military would police and would adjudicate their own. I thought that was a very positive way of looking at the military. Ultimately, it came out to be a very positive statement about the military because it said that the military had certain standards that were not going to be undermined by a few bad apples.
Initially, I think maybe the resistance had something to do with people thinking about my politics and thinking, well, you know, he's unpatriotic. I see myself as a patriot and I try to uphold everything that the flag stands for. I don’t believe in burning the flag, but I believe that the First Amendment gives people the right to do that if they want.
I do stand for the National Anthem and I do put my hand on my heart and I do sing for this country, but I also don’t say that somebody cannot take a knee if they want to protest, because that is the foundation of our country, that we are allowed to protest if we feel we’ve been aggrieved and we think things are wrong.
That is a basis and the foundation of our country and it's why we broke away from England, because we wanted to be able to protest when we thought things were wrong. That First Amendment gives us that right, so you can make that choice. I think of myself as a patriot even if people don’t view me that way.
Do you keep track of how many Republican politicians say that either “Princess Bride” or “Stand By Me” are their favorite films?
Yeah, Ted Cruz used to quote “Princess Bride” all throughout the campaign. He would actually act out scenes from the “Princess Bride.” Listen, that’s a movie where there's no political agenda. That’s just a good old-fashioned fractured fairytale and hopefully it’s fun for everybody. I love the fact that generations hand it down to their kids and they still get a kick out of it. That makes me feel great.
Your last film was a biography of LBJ. How has the business changed for making movies like that and "Shock and Awe"?
Any time you're making a movie that has a political theme to it, it’s virtually impossible. You have to really cobble together finances from different places to make it work.
But all the films I've made are not mainstream Hollywood films. Even some of them that have been very successful. Even today, none of the films that we made at Castle Rock, and we’ve made over 125 of them, none of them would get made at a major studio. Even “A Few Good Men.” Because studios only make movies now that are comic book heroes, superheroes or sequels. Those are the kind of movies you see.
My kind of movie has always been independent, whether it’s "Stand By Me" or when "When Harry Met Sally" or "Misery," whatever they are, you'd have to get independent financing.
Obviously, as an artist, you're having to look at different means of distribution for people to see those films.
Right. "Shock and Awe," for instance, right now, you can see it on DIRECTV. And it’ll be in the theaters July 13th, but it’s a very different distribution pattern where you see a film come out on television and then come out – or maybe at the same time as the theaters, independent films are being distributed that way as opposed to studio films, which always come out in the theaters first.
You've got an A-list cast for this movie. Does everyone understand that you might not be getting a full-scale theatrical release when you're making the film?
Absolutely. They all know that you're doing a very special kind of project. They do it for a lot less money than they would normally get for a studio film. And they're doing it because they want to be part of something that is important and they feel has something to say. They want to be part of that story, so you can get a lot of good actors who try to balance out doing the superhero films with doing some films that have a little bit more weight to them.