June 14 (UPI) — Director Rob Reiner, a strong believer that democracy depends on holding powerful people accountable, has long wanted to make a movie about the Iraq War.
Fifteen years after the U.S. invasion, his Shock and Awe debuts Thursday on DirecTV. The movie tells the story of the Knight Ridder journalists who investigated the motives behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Woody Harrelson, James Marsden and Tommy Lee Jones star as reporters Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel and Joe Galloway. Reiner plays their editor John Walcott. The film follows the team as it questions U.S. President George W. Bush’s plans to attack Iraq in 2003 based on alleged intelligence suggesting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. (None was ever found).
The reporters, working in the Washington bureau, doggedly worked to uncover the truth as competing media outlets published the White House’s claims without evidence. The Knight Ridder team said in the film they felt a responsibility to their readers in areas of the country where families were sending loved one off to war and deserved to know why.
“They were fighting against some very strong headwinds and they were the only ones that got it right,” Reiner told UPI in an interview Tuesday.
Reiner — who is 71 now but was of draft age during the Vietnam War — said he wanted for years to make a movie about the George W. Bush administration’s actions in the days after 9/11.
“I couldn’t believe that twice in my lifetime we were sending kids to war based on lies. … I could see it happening. … It’s like watching your kid run into the street and feeling helpless to stop him from being hit by the truck,” he said. “We ask our leaders to not send our kids into harm’s way unless they have a real rationale for doing that.”
A way into the story
For more than a decade, Reiner looked for a way to bring the subject to the screen. He considered making a Dr. Strangelove-type satire and heavier drama, but wasn’t confident either was the way to go.
After watching an episode of Bill Moyers Journal called “Buying the War,” which focused on the Knight Ridder reporters’ crusade, Reiner got in touch with the journalists and reunited with Joey Hartstone, Matt George and Harrelson — the writer, producer and star of his 2016 Lyndon B. Johnson biopic LBJ.
“This is my way into the story,” he realized.
Galloway, 76, told UPI the search for the truth was very hard work.
“We slowly grew more confident that our sources were right, our stories were right — and all the others were wrong,” said Galloway, a former UPI Vietnam War correspondent. “It was a rough ride, seeing The New York Times run the wrong stories on page 1, above the fold, day after day. In the end, The Times ran an editor’s note apologizing to its readers for getting it all wrong. Knight Ridder did not have to do that.”
Reiner said the team of journalists were “totally hands-on” in the making of the film, all four receiving associate producer credits: “They read every draft of the script.”
They also spent a lot of time on the set during filming, meaning Jones was able to get to know Galloway, whose 1992 book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young about his experience covering the Vietnam War was made into a movie in 2002.
“We are both homegrown Texas boys and we speak the same language,” Galloway said of Jones.
“If you look at the real Joe Galloway, there is a ‘no B.S.’ aspect to the real Joe Galloway and the same can be said of Tommy Lee Jones,” he said.
A tough sell
Getting financing for the film wasn’t easy, Reiner said.
“Any time you try to put together an independent film — particularly one that has political overtones to it — it’s very, very hard to get financing. And this is not even something that anybody at a Hollywood studio would ever even consider financing, so you’ve got to go to all of these independent sources and cobble together money to try to get it done,” he said.
Shock and Awe follows two other hit movies about journalism: Spotlight, based on the Boston Globe’s coverage of the priest sex abuse scandal, won the 2015 Oscar for Best Picture. The Post, about the Washington Post’s coverage of the Pentagon papers, was nominated for Best Picture last year.
The movie is named for the “shock and awe” term briefly used by the U.S. military to describe the opening bombardments of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. UPI columnist Harlan Ullman was the principal author of the term. But he notes that Iraqi Freedom was really a ramped-up repeat of the Desert Storm operation from 1991 and not the shock and awe concept envisaged and proposed by the team that created it.
Reiner said he hasn’t gotten any response from members of the George W. Bush administration and doesn’t expect to.
“One of the reasons the Knight Ridder stories never penetrated was because the Bush administration never responded to them,” he said. “They didn’t give them any oxygen. They didn’t refute them and so they let them kind of disappear into the ether and they may do the same with this film.”
A divided country
Reiner said a free and independent press is as important now as it has always been.
“We have a divided country and we have a divided media. The Trump administration — or any administration — wanting to make the case for war, they will have a certain aspect of the media willing to back them up. Normally, what a journalist is supposed to do… is get to the truth. The idea is not to be partisan, not to push the company line,” he said.
“We’ve had a radical change in the last year and a half. We have a guy who basically only cares about himself,” Reiner said. “He’s gone after the press, he’s called the press ‘the enemy of the people’ and ‘fake news.’ He’s trying to tear down the Justice Department and the FBI and the intelligence community. We don’t have any real checks and balances any more. We’re more partisan now and more divided than we’ve ever been. So, I don’t say that Donald Trump created that divide, but he certainly is exploiting it.”
Seeing journalists embrace Shock and Awe at a Monday screening and panel discussion at Newseum in Washington, D.C., was very gratifying for him, Reiner said.
“That meant a lot to me because, obviously, we hit the right note,” he added.
After its run on DirecTV ends July 11, Shock and Awe will play in select theaters starting July 13.
Reiner’s other film credits include An American President, A Few Good Men, The Princess Bride, This Is Spinal Tap, Misery, When Harry Met Sally and Stand By Me.
McClatchy bought Knight Ridder in 2006. Landay, Strobel and Walcott all work for Reuters now.