The most shocking thing about Shock and Awe is how shockingly flat it turned out to be, given the star-power behind it as well as the timeliness of its core message about the role of the free press in a democracy. With a cast list that includes Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Tommy Lee Jones and actor/director Rob Reiner, the biggest question you’re left with after the film is the same question raised in the film itself: How the hell did this happen? It should have been so much better – so more people might actually see it.

Shock and Awe certainly means well. It tells the true story of two Knight-Ridder reporters, Jonathan Landay (Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (Marsden), who, under the direction of their Editor John Walcott (Reiner) refused to buy into the government spin and false narrative about Weapons of Mass Destruction that led to the war against Iraq in 2003. It’s a reminder – and a cautionary tale – about what can happen when members of the media allow themselves to get played.

Shock and Awe tries way too hard to be a modern-day version of All the President’s Men. There are indeed shades of Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee in the dynamic between Landay, Strobel and Walcott. But the dialogue gets way too heavy-handed and trite, and the supporting characters (including Jessica Biel as Strobel’s girfriend, and Milla Jovovich as Landay’s wife) feel forced into the narrative. The dialogue might work fine in a special episode of The West Wing or (going back a bit further) Lou Grant. But as a feature film, continuous outbursts of righteous indignation – however valid – can only get you so far.

I was working at CNN during the first Gulf War (in 1991) and as a freelancer in the aftermath of 9/11, so I could remember and relate to a lot of what happens in the film. Shock and Awe is very “inside baseball.” That’s all well and good for us journalism types, but not so great for the general audience who may not even know what Knight Ridder is, or was (the newspaper conglomerate was sold in 2006).

Shock and Awe landed with a thud at the box office. But it’s still worth showing to J-school students to inform and inspire their words and actions. Make it part of a course on “journalism superheroes” in film, including All the President’s Men, Spotlight, The Post. The execution may vary, but the ultimate message remains the same and certainly bears repeating: The truth matters.

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