Rob Reiner doesn’t mince words when describing our national state of affairs: “Never before in our country’s history has the truth been more under attack, and the press under attack. Just yesterday, [Trump] called the press, again, the enemy of the people. That’s the classic authoritarian playbook, right there. We’re living in a time that’s really crazy.”
Such political outspokenness isn’t uncommon for the 71-year-old director and actor, who’s spent the past two years making his feelings well known about Donald Trump. Those sentiments can also be felt, just below the surface, in his new film Shock and Awe, which—as its title implies—is about the last time journalists were tasked with investigating a president’s controversial conduct: the 2003 Iraq War. Focused on the efforts of real-life Knight Ridder reporters Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Joe Galloway (James Marsden) to expose the Bush administration’s deceptions about weapons of mass destruction, it’s a saga of journalistic courage and integrity in the face of corrupt duplicity. Co-starring Jessica Biel, Milla Jovovich, Tommy Lee Jones and the filmmaker himself as Knight Ridder editor John Walcott, Reiner’s righteous ripped-from-the-headlines drama plays like a kindred spirit to Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning Spotlight and Steven Spielberg’s The Post.
As a celebration of the press’ vital role in keeping tabs on our (often less than trustworthy) powers that be, Shock and Awe couldn’t be timelier. Thus, shortly after its theatrical debut (last Friday), we spoke with Reiner about the Oval Office’s current Russia-loving inhabitant, the efforts of the media to hold him accountable for his behavior, and his own belief that we’re in an age of cyberwar—which, in turn, suggests that the president’s conduct does rise to the level of treason.
Shock and Awe is about the media’s duty to unearth truths hidden from the public, which is an intensely timely subject. Is that why you felt you had to make the film now?
The funny thing about it is, it’s turned out to be timely. Initially, I wanted to make the film right at the time of the invasion. I was of draft age during the Vietnam War, and I just couldn’t believe that in my lifetime we were going to war twice based on lies. It was just very clear to me that there was no real rationale to go to war in Iraq, and so I tried to figure out a way to tell this story. It seemed so improbable to me that I first took a stab at it as a satire, like a Dr. Strangelove kind of thing. I couldn’t get a script that I liked, and then I just worked on it as a pure straight drama, and that also didn’t work.
Then I saw this documentary by Bill Moyers, LBJ’s press secretary—and actually we use his quote at the beginning of the film, about the importance of a free and independent press to protect democracy. He was interviewing these four guys from Knight Ridder. I had no idea about them, because clearly whatever strategy the administration had used to keep them out of the public consciousness was successful—because they never gave them any oxygen, they never refuted them, they never responded to them. And so nobody knew. But here these guys were, exactly where I was at the beginning of this war, and I said okay, this is the way in. It’s all about the search for the truth, and how important the truth is for the public to understand in order to hold leaders accountable.
That definitely makes it relevant in today’s climate.
It wound up echoing what we’re seeing right now as we release it, because never before in our country’s history has the truth been more under attack, and the press under attack. Just yesterday, [Trump] called the press, again, the enemy of the people. That’s the classic authoritarian playbook, right there. It’s really turned out to be that, because we’re living in a time that’s really crazy. I’ve said this to many people, which is, I have a lot of Republican friends, and we talk about all kinds of stuff. Usually, the discussion is about differences in how to approach policy, and what’s the best way to get things done. Now, we’re in a discussion throughout the country of what’s true and what’s not true. It’s no longer about what’s the right way to go; it’s about what’s true.
More than ever, the press is facing much bigger headwinds than even those guys back in 2003 were facing. Because you’ve got a big chunk of mainstream media—Fox, Sinclair, Breitbart, Alex Jones and all those groups—who are basically spinning a completely different narrative than the 60 percent mainstream press. And the people getting their information from that alternative universe, you can’t get to them. As a result, we’ve got this big, big problem in this country of, how do you get through? You’ve got Vladimir Putin coming along and exploiting that division and hardening that division, because he has an asset there in the president. It’s a very perilous time, and so the film becomes very relevant all of a sudden.
Of course, the press didn’t prevent the Iraq War. Does that make you nervous about the media’s ability to adequately challenge—and censure—Trump?
It’s really tricky. You have to follow this thing, because during the campaign—the primaries and even the general election—the press essentially gave Trump a free pass. 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. And so the focus was all on Hillary’s emails, and “Crooked Hillary,” and they took the Trump narrative because they never thought he was going to win. You didn’t have the press doing their due diligence at that point. Now, you’ve got 60 percent of the press—The New York Times, The Washington Post, all the networks except for Fox—really digging in and trying to get to the truth. But unfortunately, at this point, the cement roadblock that they’re up against is this alternative narrative, this disinformation campaign that’s being thrown out. I’m scared about that. I think the honest, truth-seeking press is doing a very good job. They’re out there digging. But I would say, unfortunately, too little too late.
We went to war in Vietnam, and it took many years before Walter Cronkite said, “What a minute, this isn’t happening. This is a lie—we’ve been lied to for years.” And it took a while before the public understood that the invasion of Iraq was possibly the biggest foreign-policy disaster in the history of the country. So the press—it’s very tough for them to get out ahead and see what’s unfolding. A lot of times, it’s reactive; they see things happen and then they react to it. Now there are some great investigative journalists who are out there doing this all the time. But for the most part, the groupthink part of it is a reactive thing. I mean, Woodward and Bernstein, it was a very quaint time. And they did react—they reacted to a burglary, essentially. But now you’ve got the press reacting to a much more serious burglary, where not only did they break into the DNC but they actually got the information, and then they used it and weaponized it, and you’ve got the press reacting after the fact, where they’re running up against this other narrative that’s been built up. It’s very tough.
We certainly are barraged with scandals.
You just look at the headlines every single day. You’ve got the national security team not knowing what [Trump] said in a thing, and Trump is inviting Putin and not telling them, and now his lawyer has a tape on him with Karen McDougal. We see this every single day, one crazy bombshell after the next—and any one of these things would take down a president. But because he’s built up that cult-like roadblock, you can’t get through to those people. And because you can’t get through to those people, the Republicans in Congress are in lockstep too, because all they care about is getting reelected. Those of us who are actively trying to seek the truth, I don’t consider it a Democrat-Republican thing. I talk to very, very conservative Republicans who are telling people that we are in dire trouble now, and to start voting Democratic. They’re all saying that, because there needs to be some check on this president. And right now, there’s none.
Does that make our present situation more dangerous than the lead-up to the Iraq War?
I think it’s a scarier time, because we’re in a cyberwar—and this is another thing that’s interesting, and nobody talks about it. They throw the word “treason” around, and that’s a legal term. According to the Constitution, it has to do with aiding and abetting the enemy during a time of war. But because it’s a cyberwar, we don’t feel it. Nobody feels it. I’ve been trying to ring this alarm bell, and [Director of National Intelligence Dan] Coats did the other day—he said the system is blinking red, and that the capacity for cyberwarfare goes way beyond conventional warfare. You’re talking about the ability to shut down power grids and water supplies, and really mess up an entire economy. You can actually physically blow things up over the Internet, which we know because of Stuxnet. And we saw our capacity to do that when we blew up Iran’s centrifuges with the help of the Israelis. This is something that’s not getting communicated to the American public. They don’t feel it’s imminent, or the gravity of what’s happening. So here we are. The press, I think, is working very, very hard with this. But they’re running up against a brick wall.
Shock and Awe also addresses the press’ relationship with those it covers, and the issue of “access,” which is part of this larger conversation.
There’s always been that push-pull between the press and the people in power. You always worry about access. But you have to go back to the basic principle of journalism, which is what my Shock and Awe character John Wolcott says, which is that when the government says something, you only have one question to ask: Is it true? You have to risk not getting the access, because your job is to get information to inform the public so they can make good decisions on who to vote for. That’s really the function of the press: to keep the public informed. And you cannot keep the public informed unless you hold people in positions of power accountable.
The film’s portrait of Knight Ridder’s investigation is a complex one. How long did it take you to streamline the story into its final form?
This was an idea of mine for fifteen years, and when I saw this documentary, I approached [screenwriter] Joey Hartstone, because we were shooting LBJ at the time, and he wrote LBJ. I approached him and said, what do you think about this idea? Because I’d also seen another documentary, a true story about this young guy whose whole family had served in the military over the years, and when we were attacked on 9/11, he joined. He goes to Afghanistan, and the next thing he knows, he’s getting shipped to Iraq, and he doesn’t know why, because they hadn’t caught Bin Laden; they hadn’t finished their mission. Literally within a week, just like in the script, his transport hits an IED and he loses the use of his legs for the rest of his life. I wanted to show the nexus between the public not getting the truth about something and how devastating the results can be. As Tommy Lee Jones says in the film, when the government fucks up, the soldiers pay the price. I wanted to show that.
This is a story I always knew I wanted to tell, and in terms of structuring it, that’s something I’m pretty good at. I can figure out what’s important, what’s not, and what moves the story along. The main things that they had to uncover was one, the connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, which we knew there was none. We also had the idea of aluminum tubes, and whether they can be used to enrich uranium, because that was the big threat—that they were on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, and they were going to give them to a terrorist group and take us out. That was a big story that virtually nobody paid attention to—that those aluminum tubes could not be used to enrich uranium, because they were too small. And the third thing, the big one which everyone knows about, is weapons of mass destruction. Did they have any, and have the capacity to use them? There was absolutely no evidence that they had them.
Now, [the Bush administration] could have found out that they didn’t have them. But if they found that out, then there was no rationale to go to war, and that was something that was predetermined before 9/11. That’s something I knew about because I had read The Project for the New American Century, which was written by these neocons trying to figure out what to do with America’s position in the world now that we were the last remaining superpower following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Those are the issues I knew I had to get in—the rationale they had for going to war, and those three things. Then I had to weave in the journey of the young soldier.
I’m good with puzzles [laughs]. You want to hear a funny story? I did a film years ago as a favor. The film was in trouble—it was called Rumor Has It. They had shut down production, and Alan Horn, who was running Warner Bros., calls me and says, “Can you just come in and help us out? We’re losing $35 million.” I looked at it and I went, “Oh my god, this thing stinks!” You know, the story. But as a friend—because he’s like a brother to me, we started a company together and everything—I said, “Okay, I’ll try to figure it out.” I literally had eight days, because they had a crew worked up, and they already had Jennifer Aniston, Shirley MacLaine, Mark Ruffalo and Kevin Costner—they were all signed up! So I started working. On the first week, I worked on what I had to do, and I knew what sets and locations I had. At one point, Kevin Costner comes up to me and says, “You’re like a guy who comes in and looks at a garage that’s a complete mess, and says, ‘We’re going to put the paint cans over here, we’re going to hang the bicycles over there…’” [laughs] I’m just good at that. That’s what I do—puzzle-type stuff.
You gave the world The Bucket List. Even with a career as varied as yours, is there a genre you’d still like to try out?
Years ago, I wanted to do an original musical. Believe it or not, I worked with Stephen Sondheim and Bill Goldman on it, and we could never make it work. Maybe it’s my fault, because those guys are as good as it gets. But I could never make it work, so I kind of abandoned it. Then they did La La Land, which was an original musical, and nobody had done that since the heyday of film musicals. Now, I’m thinking and focusing more on television, because I’m seeing so many good things on television. And you have the freedom to do more. I’ve got a deal at Paramount, and I’m working to try to sell Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Nine, about the Supreme Court.