Set in the post-9/11 office of two skeptical journalists, Shock and Awe sets out nobly to relay the true story against the Bush Administration that plunged America headfirst into war with Iraq. Sounds gritty, right? Would be a shame if Hollywood saturated itself onto every predictable cheesy one-liner and cutaways of news clips. Perhaps a star cast will make up for its tediousness? Or perhaps director Rob Reiner will remain faithful to his message, but ultimately fall prey to over-scripted, predictable cliches.
Following the true events of skeptical journalists Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (James Marsden), the two investigate the authenticity of the Bush Administrations reasons behind the Gulf War. A dignified plot, but Rob Reiner directs us through a somewhat clumsily adhered docu-drama to arrive at the main conclusion that, well: war is bad.
Don’t get me wrong- it’s an honest movie. It tries very hard and remains sincere to its message against the handling of rumors surrounding Saddam Hussein. However, the political allegory comes off so strong it almost feels like a slap in the face to anybody watching. Verging itself ever so slightly on anti-war propaganda, it fails to serve a clever, character driven story. Speaking of, the characters (based of real-life figures) are similarly honest and likeable. Perhaps a little flat, as the intricacies of Americas political state take over the bulk of the film, but Reiner still includes a few human moments. An example of this is Warren Strobel’s love life, acting as a subplot for some added interest. It seems, however, this was not enough to grip my personal interest. At least, not in the same way the posters ‘high voltage and riveting thriller’ promised.
In desperate attempts to tug audiences’ heartstrings and humanize a movie set in a newspaper company, Reiner also follows (vaguely) the story of a young recruit. Adam Green sacrifices himself into the Iraq war because ‘his country needs him’ and is left paraplegic, begging the question “How the hell did this happen?”. A heftily scripted monologue preceding it, the scene is then mixed with a number of flashbacks and clichéd one liners. Most notably, Shock and Awe leans way too heavily on predictable Hollywood tropes. This results in an obviously urgent pursuit of gritty drama- ironically rendering the film rather empty and, frankly, pretty dull.
Films such as Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) and All the Presidents Men (dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1976) set a bar that Reiner’s film, despite its noble attempt, can’t quite reach. There’s a lot of clumpy exposition, such as Stroble’s date reeling off the history of Hussein’s relationship with the US (just in case the audience was lost in the flood of political lingo). Coupled with sugar-coated sentiments on the sufferings of American citizens under a corrupt government, this all renders an otherwise good movie…well…less than graceful.
On the other hand of all this negativity, Shock and Awe is a watchable film. It tells an important story. Though perhaps somewhat melodramatic, we at least are given a new perceptive on journalism that doesn’t present its workers as manipulative, selfish businessmen. With a (near) star-studded cast including Tommy Lee Jones, the acting is good and it serves well as an easy weekday thriller. However, if you’re looking for a sleek, clever and nail-biting thriller, this film, regrettably, neither shocks nor evokes awe.