With Shock and Awe, Rob Reiner thought he was making a film about the recent past instead of one reflecting on the present. The fact-based film follows the ramp-up to the Iraq War from the perspective of three reporters for Knight Ridder (played by Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, and James Marsden) and their editor (played by Reiner — though, as he explains below, he didn’t set out to take the part). As other outlets get in line with the official story that Iraq is attempting to build weapons of mass destruction, the Knight Ridder team takes a more skeptical angle — one that turns out to be true.
Reiner shot Shock and Awe at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign. It arrives in a world in which the free press faces even more challenges than it did in the George W. Bush era, when even the most thorough reporting couldn’t stop the march to war. It’s not Reiner’s first political film — preceded by The American President and last year’s LBJ, among others — and it’s far from his first foray into politics. His activism dates back to the ’60s and continues through his Twitter account. And politics were very much on the filmmaker’s mind these days when he spoke to Vulture, though he did take some time to reflect on the ongoing series of 30th anniversaries his early classics have enjoyed over the past few years and where he sees himself working in the future.
You’ve told stories about Washington, D.C. before but they’ve mostly been from the top down. How does telling one from the bottom up change your approach?
It’s about telling the story. So it’s not a different approach. You just want to tell an honest story, and in this case, we’re talking about the run-up to the war in Iraq, and many of us thought that this was one of the worst foreign policy disasters. Even before it started, we realized that this was a huge mistake, and that there were lies being perpetrated. I had no idea that there were these four journalists — I found out later that there were these four journalists — who basically got it all right. They knew that there was no connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, they knew there was no way that the aluminum tubes could enrich uranium, and they also knew that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
So we’re telling that story, and that’s a story that I’ve wanted to tell for 15 years. I wanted to tell it right when it happened because I was of draft age during the Vietnam War, and I just couldn’t believe we were entering another war based on lies. The mainstream media was traumatized by 9/11 and were in a very patriotic frame of mind, and they basically didn’t do the cardinal rule of all journalism, which is when the government says something, you only have one question to ask: Is it true? That’s something we put in the film, the character that I play says that at one point. They abdicated that responsibility, and I found these four journalists who basically stuck to their guns and found the truth, and unfortunately the truth didn’t get a chance to break through.
The reason I think it’s important now is because we see journalism under attack more now than ever. The president calls them the enemy of the people, fake news and all that. To get to the truth, even if you’re going to try, it’s very difficult because 40 percent of the country is listening to Kellyanne Conway say, “alternative facts,” which is essentially lies. You can’t penetrate those people, so it’s more important now than ever that journalists are seeking the truth and trying to find it, because, as we say at the beginning of the movie, democracy doesn’t survive unless it has a free and independent press.
This movie kind of put me in the mind-set of how I felt when this story was unfolding — I’m sure it must have for you as well. What was it like to live in that frame of mind for so long while making this movie?
At the beginning, it was like what we had the character say in the film: It was like watching your child run into the street and being helpless to stop them from getting hit by the truck. To me, there have been some great movies made about Iraq. I mean, Hurt Locker was really good, Clint Eastwood made American Sniper, but none of them dealt with, to me, the most important issue, which is: Why were we there to begin with? What were we doing there? How did we wind up there? And why didn’t the public get the truth as to what was going on? And why did it take years later and thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars lost before we started getting the truth? Here we are at a point when our democracy is really hanging by a thread, and the truth now is more important than ever. It’s a cautionary tale to say that if we don’t really seek the truth, and if journalists don’t really seek the truth, we have no chance of the democracy surviving. That’s where we are and that’s what I wanted to tell with this movie.
I’m curious what it was like making this film at the height of the 2016 election. Things must have been taking a downward turn for the Hillary Clinton campaign while you were shooting this.
We actually were shooting on the night of the election and so it was that horrible sinking feeling. Those of us who understood who Donald Trump was and are not surprised by what is going on now were just shocked that this occurred. Again, I don’t feel that the mainstream media did their due diligence during the campaign. I don’t think they thought he was going to get the nomination, and I don’t think they thought he was going to win, so they didn’t do the serious character analysis that they should have. We wind up with Trump, and we wind up with somebody who’s in line with an autocrat in Vladimir Putin, and is dismantling our relationships with our closest allies. Democracy, like I say, is hanging by a thread, so hopefully people will wake up and start paying attention here because these things creep up on you, they’re insidious and people didn’t realize. They don’t realize that this is going on. But it’s happening right now.
You don’t usually cast yourself in such a major role for one of your films. What was it like directing yourself for such a substantial part of the film with Shock and Awe?
To be honest with ya, I wasn’t supposed to play that part.
Was that supposed to be Alec Baldwin’s part?
Alec Baldwin was supposed to play the part, and we actually rearranged the entire schedule to accommodate him so that he can leave on Fridays to go do Saturday Night Live to play Trump. We got a call … We had already been shooting for a week with Woody Harrelson and Tommy Lee Jones and everybody, and I got a call from his agent — this was on a Saturday when he was supposed to work on Monday — saying he’s not going to do it, he’s dropping out. I thought, “Oh my God, this is just unbelievable.” And so Michelle [Reiner], who’s my wife, who was producing the movie with me, she suggested that I do it. To be honest with you, I don’t like acting and directing. It’s too much of a split focus. But, you know, as they say, I was available. [Laughs.] And I work cheap! I jumped in there …
You were definitely going to be on set every day.
Yeah. Michelle gave me the one bit of direction that I tried to live up to. I was playing this editor John Walcott, and she said, “Try to be less Jewish.” I tried to take her direction, I don’t know if I pulled it off or not.
You’ve been on Twitter for two years now. Do you ever regret joining?
No, I don’t regret it because, you know, I didn’t plan on doing social media, I only did it because I couldn’t believe Donald Trump was going to get a nomination, or could possibly become president. So it’s very much the way I felt when we were heading into Iraq. Like I said, I was of draft age during Vietnam, and I couldn’t believe that here we go again. This guy was a complete and utter fraud, he’s a liar, and he’s going to become president of the United States. That’s when I started tweeting. I said, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
I started tweeting because I saw a failed businessman who was a huckster, who had created this fake persona of being this successful businessman with The Apprentice and everything, and selling a bill of goods. Best snake oil salesman ever! The one thing he is good at is selling himself, and he’s done that. Now he’s got this cult of people following him no matter what he does. Everything he does hurts them, they get hammered by all these things he’s putting into place, but he’s got them believing that Mexicans are gonna come and rape them, and take their jobs, and whatever, and immigrants are ruining their lives. He’s got them all worked up and angry. He’s a real con man. I mean, P.T. Barnum’s got nothing on this guy!
This is the first year since 2014 that we haven’t had a 30th anniversary of one of your films. What is it like to be asked to reflect on your earliest work every year?
It’s weird! I think next year is, like, the 30th anniversary of When Harry Met Sally. I think!
It is, and Misery after that. Has the process of doing all these anniversaries of your films been interesting to you?
You know, I’ve made some films that have some staying power. I gotta tell ya, the biggest kick I get is when someone who saw, let’s say, Princess Bride when they were 8 or 9, now they have kids that are 8 or 9 and they’re showing the film to them. I get a great kick out of that.
When did you realize this was a movie that gets passed down from one generation to the next?
When you hear that stories from people coming up to you. When we made the film, it did okay. It wasn’t a big hit or anything like that. It just kind of did all right. As time went by, people kept finding it, and like I say, passing it on to their kids, and then it becomes what it is. Very exciting. Last year, I think it was the 30th year for this one or something …
And Stand by Me the year before that. I watched that film again recently, and I really appreciated on the DVD extras how frank you were about how it was a chance to work through some of the feelings you had about your father. Is finding that kind of personal element is part of what brings you to the films that you make?
It is, actually. I try to find my way into a story. It’s gonna make it more compelling for me, and if I can make that bigger investment, it breathes a little more life into it. I try to find those things, whether the things I care about, whether the things I think about, and I try to find a way to express myself through the films. So that’s what I do. Television has taken over because you can do better work on television than you can in films. It’s harder to get films made, harder to get them financed, and television you can actually explore things a little better. So I’m working on a couple of television projects, and one I know I’ve found my way into and I feel really good about that, if I get the go-ahead I’ll be really excited to do that one.
It kind of brings you full circle since you started in television.
Yeah, but I mean, television is different now. When I was there, there were three networks, essentially. Now you’ve got over 60 outlets creating product. They’re seen on television, but they’re also seen on laptops, and iPads, and smartphones. They’re seen in all kind of ways, but I guess it’s not made for the big screen. I see so many good things on television. I have this one deal with Paramount and I hope they let me make the show because I’m really excited about it, and I think I can express myself better in that than anything I’ve done recently in films.
We’re at a period now where there’s a lot of concern about anything but the biggest possible films breaking through to a wide audience. Has that been your experience over the last few years?
Well, the studios, that’s all they make. They only make franchise pictures. These are big investments. Every time they put money up for a film, they’re risking anywhere from $400 million to close to $1 billion. It’s like a start-up every time, a new business. They don’t want to spend a lot of money on advertising on a smaller film if they’re not going to get it back, and they can’t get the return on the investment that they get on these big films. So, any other film, if you’re not making one of these franchise films, you’ve gotta make an independent film, and then you’re just scrounging around trying to find money.
Let me get ahead of the curve, since everyone is going to be talking to you about When Harry Met Sally next year, what’s one thing that nobody knows about that movie you can tell me now?
I think some people might know this, but not a lot of people do, is that in the initial ending Harry and Sally didn’t get together and I only changed it because I met my now-wife … we will be married 30 years next year. I met her during the making of the movie and I changed the ending because of that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.