In both journalistic and cinematic terms, Shock and Awe feels too much like yesterday’s news.
This earnest but heavy-handed political drama from venerable director Rob Reiner chronicles a worthwhile and relevant true-life account of investigative reporting in the face of post-Sept. 11 public outcry.
It suffers a bit from poor timing since it comes on the heels of The Post, a thematically similar film with more urgency, superior source material, better character development, and greater contemporary resonance.
Yet considered on its own, the film feels trite and formulaic considering its compelling backdrop, marked by aggressive sentimentality and a slanted perspective. Reiner is a notorious political lefty, after all.
The story takes place in the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder Newspapers in the aftermath of the 9-11 terror attacks, where reporters Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (James Marsden) race to stay ahead of their more prominent big-city competitors in breaking stories.
President George W. Bush readies retaliatory military action against Iraq, claiming its dictator, Saddam Hussein, was stockpiling “weapons of mass destruction.” Most news agencies blindly accept White House rationale as the American public uses widespread patriotism as a coping mechanism.
However, a reliable tip leads the Knight Ridder team, including an editor (Reiner) and a Vietnam veteran (Tommy Lee Jones), in a different direction with the belief that the Bush administration has ulterior motives for the Iraq invasion, and that such weapons don’t actually exist.
Reiner’s slick direction keeps the pace lively, and the ensemble cast is solid all-around. The film captures the energy of a fully staffed newsroom — which sadly identifies it as a period piece — with its adrenaline-fueled chase for leads and sources, along with its playful banter to lighten the mood under trying circumstances.
However, the screenplay by Joey Hartstone (LBJ) veers into tangents and clumsy plot devices that limit the suspense and emotional impact. A romantic subplot involving Strobel and his neighbor (Jessica Biel) is awkward, and a bookend sequence with a wounded soldier (Luke Tennie) is tacked-on if heartfelt.
Besides The Post, the film also pales in comparison to All the President’s Men, which has a similar vibe of breaking-news camaraderie, or Spotlight, which likewise challenged authority with an audacious team of reporters. Even on a smaller scale, such company is tough to share, and Shock and Awe needs a rewrite.