As frequently as the attacks of September 11, 2001, have been reenacted or invoked in the last two decades of film, there has been an unspoken agreement, clung to with near-superstitious fervor, that they cannot be movied. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 was perhaps the first notable film to depict one aspect of the physical business of 9/11 front and center; it was lauded at the time, and to this day, for its realism and lack of “Hollywood aggrandizement.” Even Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center was praised for the filmmaker’s comparative lack of “histrionics.” It’s been assumed since then that this is the only acceptable style in which to represent the events of that day, perhaps because there’s so much that’s still politically fraught about it. It’s hard for a mainstream artist to go for all-out rousing or feel liberated enough to be interpretive when we’re still not exactly sure how the story ends.
So it’s jarring to realize that this mandate of dry reenactment might have finally loosened — or, at the very least, loosened for Rob Reiner. The director, on a kind of mournful-trumpet kick recently between this and last year’s wooden LBJ, is attempting a film that should just work — a kind of Spotlight or The Post for the post-9/11 fabricated justification to invade Iraq, following the journalists who were onto it before anyone else. Obviously, the tactile rubble-and–first responders aspect of September 11 is not what Reiner is focused on, but a good first third of the film is given over to the events of that day, seen not from ground level but as most people in this country saw them — on TV. In that respect, somehow it presents an even more stark example of reality versus fiction; most Americans I know only recall staring dumbfoundedly at our televisions that morning while our brains caught up to the understanding of the world being forever altered. In Reiner’s film, they dramatically, knowingly eye their screens, or dispense with some winking, lite would-be Sorkinisms. One bartender’s first reaction as he watches the first tower crumble is to grumble with blue-collar affect that a “lot of people are going to want to drink tonight.” Cute!
Afterwards, Shock and Awe makes its way through its main course — the long, murky journey between the attacks and the titular 2003 military campaign that ousted Saddam Hussein and led to the calamitous destabilization of the Middle East that lasts to this day. Woody Harrelson and James Marsden are reporters at the D.C. bureau of Knight Ridder, the newspaper company that syndicated stories to a swath of midsize city newspapers across the country until its purchase in 2006. Reiner himself plays their garrulous bureau chief John Walcott; Tommy Lee Jones plays journalist and former war correspondent Joe Galloway, who becomes a valuable asset to Walcott’s fact-finding mission. With the slight exception of Reiner, who gives himself much of the “dad at the dinner table explaining what was so fucked up about Iraq” moments, this is a well-cast bunch playing figures as worthy of dramatization as any recent journalism picture (it certainly is a bit bittersweet how much of a subgenre this has become in recent years).
But Reiner and writer Joey Hartstone (who also worked with the director on LBJ) can’t quite hold back the Hollywoodisms, which undercut the seemingly unglamorous pavement-pounding business of getting the inside scoop on Donald Rumsfeld. Over and over again, Shock and Awe begins to feel like it’s cooking, but then takes a break for some truly egregious schmaltz — a mystifying romantic subplot between Marsden and Jessica Biel that goes nowhere, orchestra-swell speechifying that feels slapped on over concerns that the whole thing doesn’t feel enough like a movie. It’s the stylistic opposite of Meryl Streep’s gracefully graceless “let’s go, let’s publish” moment in The Post. The problem isn’t Reiner taking dramatic liberties with the facts, it’s that his toolbox for doing so hasn’t changed since the mid-’90s.