Shock and Awe: Interview with Director and Writer Rob Reiner

Rob Reiner is the producer, director, writer and actor of Shock and Awe

Passion Project

Rob Reiner: I wanted to make a movie about how we got into Iraq, right after the invasion in March of 2003.   I was of draft age during the Vietnam War and I just couldn’t believe we were going to war again based on a lie.  And that really was very upsetting to me.  And everybody was kind of wrapped up in the fervor and patriotism of 9/11, and I didn’t see any of the mainstream media outlets really talking about what was really happening.

Michelle, my wife, is one of the producers on the film and we felt like, we marched, there were protest marches before going to war and the character in the film that James Marsden plays, Warren Strobel, he talked about how it was like watching your child run into the street and feeling helpless to stop from getting hit by the truck.  That’s the way I felt.  I thought I can’t believe this is happening. Subsequently, some films come out, even good films like, The Hurt Locker, but they never talked about the lie and how did we wind up there and the tragedy and the horrible foreign policy disaster, the worst in my lifetime to see this.

 

Tone

RR: Initially I just tried to approach it like a satire and I thought maybe like a “Dr. Strangelove” kind of thing.  And I worked with Larry Gelbart, a really good screenwriter, and we could never get a script that I really liked.  And then we tried again with a different writer as a dramatic film and it didn’t work.  And then a number of years later, I saw this documentary by Bill Moyers, who was the Press Secretary for Lyndon Johnson and the first quote at the beginning of the film, that talks about how you cannot have a democracy without a free and independent Press, that documentary highlighted these four journalists, and I didn’t know about them.  I mean, in the war, I am reading stuff in The New York Times and The Washington Post, all these appearances by Andrew Card and Dick Cheney on “Meet the Press” and I am thinking what the heck, where are the people really telling the truth about this?  And when I saw this documentary, I said oh, that’s the way into the story and that there were people who actually did care about the truth and about telling people what actually happened, but for whatever reason, they couldn’t break through, they couldn’t break through because like I say, people were caught up in 9/11 and also quite frankly the Bush Administration from their standpoint was smart by not giving them any oxygen and never responding to any of them or refuting any of the claims they made.  And then I saw another documentary which was about a young guy who, and this was a true story, about a guy who, his whole family had been in the military, and when 9/11 happened, he joined and he wanted to fight.  And he went to Afghanistan and before they finished the mission of finding Bin Laden and disrupting Al Queda, next thing he knows, he’s being sent to Iraq and he didn’t understand why.  And within a week, just like in the film, his transport hits an ID and it explodes and he loses his legs for the rest of his life.  So I wanted to put those two things together which is, how important it is to get the truth out because as Tommy Lee Jones’ character Joe Galloway says in the film, “when the Government fucks up, the soldiers pay the price.”

 

Government and Journalism

RR: That to me, the point of journalism and the whole idea of journalism is embodied in the line that my character says, which is, “when the Government says something, you only have one question to ask, is it true?” And that’s what the job is of journalists.  And they had strong headlines so that they couldn’t get the truth out and now we are seeing even more strong headlines.  We are seeing the President call the Press the enemy of the people and fake news, essentially state run media with Fox and Sinclair and Brietbart and Alex Jones, feeding this base of his, real lies and real fake news and the truth seeking media is finding it impossible to break through to those people.  And anybody who knows and has been studying the ebbs and flows, the geopolitical ebbs and flows of the world knows that there’s no guarantee that democracy stays around, even though America is the longest surviving democracy.  It’s only 242 years as of this last 4th, and great civilizations, the sweet spot is anywhere between 250 and 300 years, well, here we are.  And we have a confluence of things where you have a divided country to begin with and then you have an African-American President that unleashes this seemingly dormant racism, and it’s always been there, but it’s now becoming even more virulent, because you have a demagogue coming in there stoking that anger and stoking that racism and you have a foreign enemy power who is more than happy to do that, because their goal is to destabilize democracy around the world and that’s what they are doing.  They are doing it with Brexit and they are doing it here and they are doing it in Italy and other countries around the world, and they are trying to disrupt the European union and they are trying to break up NATO and they have got a willing ally in the President of the United States.  So right now, more important than ever, is that there is a film that says about the importance of a free and independent Press and that we have to have it and if we don’t have it, then we are going to see the end of democracy.  And I don’t see how we don’t unless we get the word out and unless we make sure that this is important. I mean, it’s scary, and so now is the time to try to talk about this.  And I woke up this morning and I wake up and I don’t know how you guys do, but I am in a constant state of anxiety.  I love this country and I want to see everything it stands for and everything that it’s supposed to be about.  Certainly we have done a lot of bad things in this country, but the idea of it, the thing that we are reaching for, is this whole thing of letting everybody come in and letting all different nationalities and religions and races all mixed together, because it makes us stronger.  And we have a guy, an autocrat right now who is saying get out, get out to everybody who is not white.  And that is, people from Europe know what that’s about.  We know what that is about, my wife’s mother, she lost her entire family in Auschwitz and she survived, her mother was the only one that survived.  And people go along complacently, thinking that well it’s not going to happen here, I am not really Jewish, I am just German.  But, it’s happening.  He goes to these rallies with thousands of people there and screams about horrible stuff, just horrible, horrible things.  And it’s just fine, it won’t happen, it won’t happen, but well, if we are not vigilant, it will happen, and that is what the whole film is about, that’s what the film is about, you have got to be vigilant and you have got to stay with it. And I think the Press is going a good job, at least 60 percent of the Press, is doing a good job.  We are hard working trying to get to the truth, but they are coming up against this 40 percent, and it’s really hard.  And I don’t believe that the Press did their due diligence during the campaign.  They didn’t think that Trump could get the nomination and they didn’t think he could win, so they kind of discounted it.  But you see what happened, and the consequences are enormous, enormous, so there you go.

Trump Aiming to be Dictator

RR: He already is.  I mean he basically is turning his back on the rule of law, today we just read that Government agencies can only watch Fox News, (laughter) you are laughing about it, but I’m telling you what’s happening, they are only allowed to tune to Fox News.  I mean that is not a joke anymore.  So yes, he wants to be a dictator, he wants that.  He would like nothing better than to be Vladimir Putin, he’s got “Putin Envy.” He wants to be someone who can run the country and have everything come through him, so he gets his taste of any business transaction that goes through, that goes in this country, and that’s what he’s doing.  I believe he’s going to fail, I believe in the goodness of the American people and I believe that our institutions will hold, but right now, the Press is struggling, the rule of law is under attack and there’s no checks and balances, which is what was designed in the Constitution when it was first written, and there are no checks and balances anymore.  So we will see how far he can take it.  Here’s an interesting thing, think about this for a second, there’s a new Supreme Court nominee that’s going to be put forward on Monday, that will tip the court to a conservative court.  This President right now is under investigation for money laundering, for obstruction of justice and for conspiring with a foreign enemy to undermine democracy.  That Justice may be hearing these three things, can a sitting President be indicted, can a sitting President be compelled to testify and can a sitting President pardon themselves?  And this new Justice is going to be a part of that new determination.  That’s scary stuff, that’s really scary stuff.  And you know he’s going to ask for a Pledge of Loyalty.

 

Weapons of Mass Destruction

RR: Well, here was the biggest problem that Knight Ridder faced and why.  What you are talking about was a long treatise that was written by a bunch of neo-cons, Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, Richard Perle, William Crystal, they have written this thing that I think was for the American Enterprise Institute, and this was written long before they invaded Iraq.  It was written in the 90s, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and America was emerging as the last remaining superpower.  And the question that these neo-cons had was what to do with this power, this singular power that the United States had at that point?  And the idea was that we wanted to be able to spread democracy, we wanted to democratize the world and find ways to do that.  And the idea that they had was, if they could establish another Western style democracy in the Middle East, it would proliferate and it would protect Israel and do what they wanted it to do.  Now this is a question I had, I asked a lot of people, because I read that same paper that you read, and I always wondered why, they are all smart people these people, they are not idiots these people. And I always wondered why they thought that going into Iraq, because they picked Iraq as the most unlikely place to go, but going into Iraq and taking an iron fist like Saddam Hussein out of there in a area that was an arbitrary country and all the countries in that area of the world were arbitrary because after the first world war it was carved up by the British and the French.  And they weren’t countries, they were just boundaries with areas and you had an area that was 60 percent Shiite and 20 percent Sunni and 20 percent Kurd.  So the minority was controlling that part of the world.  And anybody who had read their history of Islamic faith and Muslim faith, knew that when Muhammad died, 1,400 years prior, that it divided up into two sects, the Sunni and Shiite.  And they were warring with each other, they hated each other because it was all about who was the rightful heir to Muhammad.  Well that was all known.  So if you take Saddam Hussein out of there, you are going to unleash what we all saw, it was like kids running into the street and I have seen it happening.  Okay, so I asked the question, I asked a lot of people, I said didn’t they know this was going to happen?  And the surprising answer I got was, no, they didn’t know.  They didn’t realize that that was going to happen.  Now, why did The New York Times and all these other outlets not publish it?  Well, they were caught up in not wanting to look unpatriotic because the country was in shock over 9/11 and didn’t want to look unpatriotic.  We screened this film awhile ago in Dubai, we also screened it in Zurich, the first place we screened it was in Zurich and a standing ovation, and I have never, in all the films I have ever made in all of my life, I have never had a reaction like that in any film.  Because they knew, they knew. Here we are 15 years later and there’s some filmmaker who is coming along that is making a film about the honest thing of what happened in Iraq.  15 years after it happened.  During the Vietnam War, there were lots of films coming out.  And in 15 years, “American Sniper” came out.  And “Hurt Locker” which was about dismantling bombs, but not about what is at the base, what is at the core of Iraq?  Nobody makes that film, and I tell you, America was in a trauma state and Biden didn’t want to go against it, and Hillary Clinton, who I love and she is a friend, she was thinking of running for President and a woman saying I am going to be soft on the Military, she made her calculation, but 77 senators made their calculation and voted to give him authority.  John Kerry was another one, who fought in the Vietnam War, so that is what we have.  And then the second thing is, the Bush Administration, because the Knight Ridder guys couldn’t break through, they never paid any attention to them. They said we are not going to respond to them and we are not going to refute them, nobody is listening and so it will go away.  And so they never got any oxygen, and there you have it. But when the Government makes a mistake, there’s a big heavy price to pay, especially when it comes to war and peace.  And I would submit that now, we are in a war for the soul of democracy throughout the world.  And it’s being waged in an insidious way, through cybersecurity.  But don’t kid yourself, you can stop water supplies and you can stop electric grids and you can do all kinds of things, we have done it, other countries have done it.  So that is what we are in right now, and I think it’s more important that people have the truth.  People need to hear the truth, because they can’t make an informed decision unless they have it.

 

When Harry Met Sally: Anniversary

RR: It has the top line, per AFI.  First I have got to say it’s not only the 30th Anniversary of “When Harry Met Sally” but it’s my 30th anniversary with my wife Michelle, because when we made the film, and the film had a different ending, before I met Michelle, I never had Harry and Sally getting back together, cause I didn’t know how that could happen, I couldn’t see myself ever being with anybody, and I was making such a mess of every relationship I was in.  But then we changed the ending because of that. So anyway, that is that, and yeah, the “I’ll have what she’s having” was the funniest line ever in any film that I have ever done.  And it was written by Billy Crystal and my mother delivers it, and I love the fact that it is in those top rated lines of all time, when you have Clark Gable, who says “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” or Humphrey Bogart, “This could be the beginning of a beautiful…” and Estelle Reiner is in there with those people.

 

Truth and Social Media

RR: In terms of truth, it’s more difficult now than ever before, because of social media.  I saw something, I saw for a minute, it was on one of the news shows, it was Nixon being interviewed long after he had left office.  And of course everybody knows he lost the first election because everybody said that Kennedy looked better on television and people who heard the debate thought that Nixon had won the debate, so the power of television, and he recognized that as time went by.  And I can tell you that if Richard Nixon had the backup of what I essentially call state run media right now, he wouldn’t have left.

 

Reality Now

BR: Well that is what we don’t know and we are going to have to find out, we are being tested right now.  And the question is, do our institutions, are they strong enough to hold?  I would like to believe that they will, but I don’t know, because if the democrats are not able to win back the house, then you won’t have any oversight of this President for another two years going up to the election and that is enough to really destroy it.  And how difficult is it for the democrats to win back the house?  It’s very difficult because they are now facing gerrymandering, they are facing voter suppression and they are also facing this active measures, disinformation campaign that is coming from Trump and from the Russians, and it’s still here and it’s going on now.  That’s a lot. So you can’t just win, you have to win by a lot to overcome all that, because even though we won by three million votes this last election, but we lost.  And the Republicans know one thing and they know how to win.  They don’t know about how to govern, but they know how to win.  And they will do anything to win, they will break all the rules. McConnell won’t let a guy be questioned for a Supreme Court confirmation. And now he is going to try to shove somebody right through.  They know about winning, but it’s November and we have to win the House back.  If we do, then at least there will be some investigations of what is going on.

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