Tuesday, 26 May 2020


When I wrote a book about Oliver Stone, I coined a name, 'The Thumper' to describe the moment when, in virtually all his movies, the action stops and he metaphorically turns to the audience and explains what has been going on, the moral of the story, as it were. Since so much of Stone's work is about chasing a sense of enlightenment, that isn't so surprising.

The biggest problem with Shock And Awe is that there is no Thumper--or rather, the whole movie is one continuous Thumper, telling us what many of us knew at the time, what all of us except the haters and deniers know now, but which, almost alone in the mainstream media, Knight-Ridder was reporting then--that the Iraq war was based on a mountain of lies, lies legitimized by most of our political discourse. The point is made repeatedly and heatedly, especially by Rob Reiner in a plum role as K-R'sWashington editor John Walcott, acting almost as the audience's conscience, if the audience were all Rob Reiners.

There is a key moment in Shock And Awe, when our two lead Knight-Ridder reporters (played by Woody Harrelson and James Marsden) finally get an interview with Ahmed Chalabi, the Bush regime's (and their echo chamber in the media's) go-to source on Saddam Hussein and WMDs. With Chalabi, played as far less slick than he seemed at the time--more Sydney Greenstreet than reality would have suggested) ducking and diving, the interview descends quickly into argument, and then Chalabi calls the journalists 'smug'. Although you are no doubt on their side, you realise he is absolutely right--their sense of smug frustration seems to overpower their professional ability. When they entered Chalabi's office, his aide introduced them as coming from 'Knight Rider', which was maybe the only really funny moment in the film--but it's ruined because, when they leave, they remind the lackey that it's 'Knight-Ridder'--thus proving Chalabi's accusation of smugness is true.

This odd smug futility is compounded by a similar scene in which the reporters argue with Harrelson's father-in-law and Marsden's girl-friend's dad (their romance story has probably the worst 'meet-cute' I've ever seen and the whole sub-plot is arch and treacly--Marsden and Jessica Biel seem to be trying to reinforce their images as beef/cheese cake) over the invasion. Again, neither can make a coherent argument. I understand that this mirrors the problems Knight-Ridder was having in the wider world, when it became the go-to source for almost anyone who saw through the subterfuges, and became ignored by everyone else--including some of its own syndicate, here represented by the Philadelphia Inquirer) but that frustration again seems to infantilise the reporters. In fact, that may be the point: their relationship to Walcott is presented as naughty children to a stern father, or maybe teacher.

In some ways it's unfair to judge the film too harshly, because what it really is is a docu-drama, and if it stuck to that more limited format it might have been better. The tale is bookended by an individual's story, and that works to an extent, but frankly the drama in between does not do the sacrifice justice. The actual news clips of Bush, Chaney,Rumsfeld, Rice and Powell (whom the film tries to exonerate by bringing in Tommy Lee Jones to play Joe Galloway and do that) render most of the anonymous sources just that: anonymous--in many cases simply repeating Reiner's talking points. And the key dramatic point--being beaten by the New York Times to the story of Rumsfeld's private intelligence agency--is never really explained.

We all know how the story ended, and 17 years later we are still mired down in the region, on which anarchy and chaos, not democracy, has descended. Fifteen years later, a film whose ending comes so abruptly, and with so little payback that it actually shocked me, wasn't really enough to offer.Except perhaps to satisfy or justify a certain sense of lingering smugness about being right, without being able to have done, or still do, anything to undo the wrong.

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