By ALLISON KUGEL
Rob Reiner may have entered show business as an industry legacy, following in the footsteps of his famous father, legendary comedic writer and performer, Carl Reiner. But he quickly paved his own path with an artistic and social point of view all his own. After paying his dues with bit parts and writing gigs on various television series throughout the 1960s, Reiner got his big break in 1972, when Norman Lear cast him as Michael ‘Meathead’ Stivic, the outspoken, liberal, counterculture son-in-law of Archie Bunker on the now culturally iconic television series, All In The Family.
As the constant foil to Archie’s blue-collar, xenophobic sensibilities, Michael Stivic represented the birth of the 1970s liberal progressive. It was a stark contrast to a previous generations’ more conservative ideals. The show was an instant classic as it touched on racism, immigration, gender, politics, women’s liberation and a changing of the guard of American ideas and values. In our current political climate, the show remains relevant.
Reiner then leveraged his television notoriety into a directing and producing career, forming his company, Castle Rock Entertainment, in 1987, and going on to produce hit films like When Harry Met Sally, Misery, City Slickers, A Few Good Men, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Miss Congeniality and The Bucket List among many others.
Always an outspoken politico (his Twitter feed holds nothing back) and advocate for liberal and democratic values, Reiner gets more political with his new film Shock And Awe, which he produced, directed and stars in. It’s based on the true story of a team of daring investigative journalists who went against the grain in 2003, and broke the story that there were, in fact, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. To this day, they are known as “the reporting team that got Iraq right” when other media outlets toed the party line in support of the Bush-Cheney WMD assertion as America’s reason for invading Iraq on March 20, 2003 in a military operation known as, of course, Shock And Awe.
Shock And Awe is about a team of journalists who debunk the Bush-Cheney administration’s public assertion that weapons of mass destruction were behind our government’s decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003. What is your personal theory about the connection between the events of 9/11 and the decision to go to war with Iraq?
If you look at the Project For The New American Century, which was written long before 9/11 by a neo-conservative think-tank, it was a paper outlining what they felt should be done with America’s position in the world after the fall of The Berlin Wall, when we emerged as the only remaining superpower in the world. The question was, what to do with that power, and what the best way was to export democracy throughout the world. They spoke specifically about going into Iraq as a way of establishing a Western-style democracy, aside from Israel, in the Middle East. The thought was that it would spread democracy throughout that region, and ultimately wind up protecting Israel. When 9/11 happened, the talk in Washington was already about going to Iraq; this was the day after 9/11. They were already planning to go to Iraq, but they knew they had to go to Afghanistan first because that’s from where the attacks came; the Taliban supported Al-Qaeda. But they’d already made the plans to go to Iraq before that.
Aside from the perspective of the real journalists you’re portraying, the film shows a human element with a family whose son gets deployed to Iraq. Do you think our government sees children of lower income families as expendable in their pursuit of war for profit?
They certainly go to war for profit, there’s no question. Whether or not they feel people who don’t have financial privilege are expendable, I wouldn’t be able to speak to that. But President Eisenhower did talk about the military-industrial complex, and ever since the Second World War, we’ve been engaged in all kinds of military adventures that have been less than successful. Vietnam and Iraq are the two that come to mind. We didn’t have a standing army before World War II, and then we kept one and the question became, “What do you do with that standing army?” In the film, Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Joe Galloway, says, “When the government f**ks up, the soldiers pay the price.”
You are a staunch defender of a free press as a pillar of our democracy. We have a for-profit media that is owned by corporate interests. How can we possibly have the kind of free press you speak of when there are corporate interests backing our media outlets?
You make a good point. Up until 1968, the news was a loss leader for the three networks; ABC, NBC and CBS. You put it on the air and you didn’t expect to make money. It was something they did as a public service. It was a big deal when Walter Cronkite moved from 15 minutes in the evening to a half hour. In 1968, 60 Minutes came along and it was a very successful show, and it started making money. For the first time, networks saw that the news could be a profit centre. Like you say, as these media outlets have grown and become a part of much bigger corporate conglomerates, it’s very tough. If you talk to ABC, CBS and NBC, they’d tell you that their journalists are independent and apart from whatever corporate interests there are, and if there is a conflict they would mention it in their reporting. But it’s hard to separate those things sometimes. That’s always going to be an issue, but I would suggest that it’s about striving for the truth. You don’t always necessarily get there, but you’ve got to strive for it. It’s like my character [award-winning journalist, John Walcott] in the film says, “When the government says something, you only have one question to ask: Is it true?”
What are your main sources of news these days? Who do you trust?
I trust The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS; I trust CNN. I don’t trust Fox, and by the way, there are some good people at Fox. Shepard Smith is great, and I had a conversation with him and asked, “How do you stay there?” He said, “They need me there.” Because if they’re even going to have a semblance of being a legitimate news outlet, they have to at least be able to point to someone as reporting the truth. A big chunk of Fox News acts as state-run media. We’ve never had that in America. It makes it hard for the mainstream media to try to break through. People who are ingesting that news will never come around, because they’re cemented in their way of thinking by this vast propaganda. It’s classic authoritarian stuff.
Let’s talk about the cast of Shock And Awe. It’s based on real journalists who broke the story that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, who were with Knight Ridder at the time. Warren Strobel is played by James Marsden and Jonathan Landay is played by Woody Harrelson. What qualities did you look for when you were casting those roles?
They’re both brilliantly equipped journalists and both really smart. But Jonathan was a little bit more whacky and had a little more of a quirkiness to him. That’s why I wanted Woody, who is a little bit more playful. And the thing with Warren Strobel is that he did meet his soon-to-be wife [played by Jessica Biel] during that whole time when he was working on these articles. I knew I wanted to have a romantic storyline. I cast James Marsden as Warren, who brings a lot of intelligence to the part, but he also has a romantic quality to him.
Tell me about the research you did to prepare to play Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau Chief, John Walcott.
Walcott, Warren Strobel, Jonathan Landay and Joe Calloway were all involved in the writing of the script. They met with us a number of times to go over the script to make sure it was accurate, and they were around for the filming and totally hands-on. There is nothing in the film that they wouldn’t give their stamp of approval for. In fact, my newsroom speech in the film was the speech that John [Walcott] actually gave. It was Jonathan Landay who came up to me and said, “You should put that speech in that John Walcott gave to us.” John Walcott told me the speech and I wrote it down. We put it right in there and shot it that day.
I stumbled upon an interesting statistic that blew my mind. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 43% of Americans, in 2018, still believe that the Iraq war was a good idea.
How was it a good idea?
Forty-three percent. That’s a lot of people. How do you reach those people with this film and get them to watch it with an open mind?
In terms of marketing, I don’t know how you reach people like that; that’s not my expertise. What I can say is that whether you think it was a good idea or not, you have to agree that sending people off to their deaths based on a lie is not a good idea. We killed and wounded about 38 000 [Americans], and over a million Iraqis were killed or wounded. Two trillion dollars of American [money] was spent on that [war], with it going up over the years. I would argue that it’s never good to go to war based on a lie even if the results are something you think are positive. We came out of it and then wound up having to fight Isis on top of it all.
Had social media been around leading up to both the Vietnam and the Iraq Wars, how do you think today’s social media landscape would have impacted the narrative?
In the case of the Iraq war, it would have benefited the administration even more. The problem we had with those of us who thought we shouldn’t be going there is, just like the four guys at Knight Ridder, we were bucking the zeitgeist of patriotism that came out of 9/11. If [former Vice President, Dick] Cheney wanted to spread the false narrative that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, that the aluminium tubes could be used to enrich uranium [in the weeks leading up to the Iraq war, senior administration officials repeatedly stated that Iraq had attempted to acquire more than 100 000 high strength aluminium tubes for gas centrifuges to be used for enriching uranium. Highly enriched uranium is one of the two materials that can be used to make nuclear weapons – https://www.ucsusa.org] and that he was developing WMDs, if Dick Cheney had had access to social media, that would make their case even stronger and people would be feeling really unpatriotic if they went against it.
And the Vietnam War?
The Vietnam War might have been different because at that time there was a fervour of anti-communism. People were worried about communism and the domino theory, and all of that. It might have cut both ways on that one. What we have found is that social media makes it tough for people to figure out what’s true and what’s not. The Russians have been playing these active measures games and these misinformation campaign games for a long time. We do it too, but it gets weaponised when you talk about social media. It’s hard to overcome lies. That’s why they say, “A lie makes its way five times around the world before the truth gets its pants on.”
What was the atmosphere on set? Did the actors get into political conversations?
Sure. Not only were we making this film, but we were filming during the 2016 presidential campaign, so there was a lot of talk about what was going on. I don’t think the mainstream press thought [President Trump] was going to get the nomination, and I don’t think they thought he was going to win. So, I don’t think they vetted him the way they vetted Hillary Clinton. That was the biggest problem. A lot of press will tell you that they really didn’t dig deep enough into [Trump].
Do you think it’s okay for the powers that be to have worked behind the scenes to attempt to sabotage President Trump’s campaign and to bolster Hillary Clinton’s campaign, if they thought it would serve the greater good of the country?
I don’t think they should do that for the sake of doing that. They should only bring out what he really is. I don’t know what you mean by sabotage. How can you sabotage a campaign unless you’re telling lies about the guy?
Let me re-structure the question in a slightly different direction. Do you think it was okay for the Democratic party to use certain tactics to attempt to sway the nomination in Hillary Clinton’s favour, over Bernie Sanders, during the 2016 primary race if they felt she was the stronger candidate and that pushing her into the Democratic nomination was for the greater good?
Now you’re talking about a political party, and political manoeuvrings, and what political parties do to have electoral success. That’s different than saying could the press have attempted to sabotage one candidate over another.
Similar moral and ethical quandary, but I’m now stating it from a different position. The question is essentially, do you feel it’s okay to intercept the purity of our democratic election process to serve a perceived greater good?
No, I don’t think it is. And by the way, I think Hillary would have won the nomination anyway. They did bring out the fact that Debbie Wasserman Schultz wasn’t favouring Hillary Clinton. In all fairness, Bernie Sanders wasn’t a Democrat, and they were trying to nominate a Democrat. But I don’t think the process should ever be compromised. I can tell you that if the press spent as much time talking about a man running for president who had basically defrauded people out of their life savings as much as they did about Hillary Clinton’s emails, there’s no way he would have become president. There is no way America would elect a guy who is a criminal who defrauds people out of their life savings. But you only heard about that one time.
There’s no question that the media chose to feed the beast of sensationalism when it came to President Trump, and I do believe they regret that approach.
I’m sure they do; just like The New York Times printed an apology about the Iraq war. It’s the job of the media to vet these candidates. And they didn’t do that with Trump. They spent a lot of time on the Access Hollywood tape. Who the hell cares about that? They already impeached a guy who had bad sexual proclivities. And who cares? If a guy is a criminal and he steals money from people, and he then takes other people’s money to pay them off, gee whiz!
In the 1970s, Norman Lear created All In The Family, and the iconic character of Archie Bunker, who has been referred to as “a lovable bigot.” That character was the original famous xenophobe, if you will. You, of course, played his liberal son-in-law, Mike ‘Meathead’ Stivic. How do you think Archie Bunker would have played with today’s television audience?
I think it would have played well. We’re a little bit more PC now. I don’t think you can say some of the things we said. But the thing about the ‘Archie’ character was that we always made fun of him on the show. It was a satire, and any time his bigotry and racism were on display, we would always knock it down and refute it. We’d always shine a light on the ignorance of it. So, we made fun of it. I think that’s the way you could do it, as long as people know that you’re not saying it’s a good thing.
How has your father, Carl Reiner, moulded your political and social ideals over the years?
It’s more so coming from my mother than my father. Although my father is politically active, he’ll even tell you that his wife [the late Estelle Reiner] was educating him about political ideas. She was more of a politically thoughtful person, and then my dad got involved in it too. He marched in the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, and you can see him on Twitter. Every night he goes after Trump.
You don’t mince words on Twitter either. You really go after Trump. After you post a tweet, do you look at your comments at all?
I used to in the beginning, but now I’ve got almost half a million followers and there are just so many of them, and they’re so ruthless. They say all these horrible things. “You’re a libtard, you’re a commie [sic].” I don’t really look at it and I don’t really care what they have to say, because I know who this guy is [referring to President Trump]. He’s a mentally ill guy who’s got major emotional problems that he tries to fill by aggrandising himself in a narcissistic way. He admires autocrats because I think he has autocratic envy. I think [Trump] would love to be Vladimir Putin; anything to have a government where every business has to run through him, and he gets a cut of everything. He stokes fear and he’s a racist. We’ve seen people like this before, but it’s just amazing that it happened in this country.
News today seems to be fear-driven. A lot of Americans have taken to avoiding the news. How do you think people ought to strike a balance between staying informed and not succumbing to fear?
I think it requires doing some work. There are real fears and real problems. And then there are created problems that are blown up. You have to be able to understand the difference and recognise an actual threat, and what is a perceived or trumped up threat. The only way to know the difference is to do some reading. For example, if you are only going to read one side, then you are going to think that MS-13 [an international criminal gang] is streaming across the border into America. But if you do your homework you’ll find out that MS-13, although a violent gang, is not doing that. It’s a homegrown group and illegal immigration is way down from where it was. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have an immigration policy. You need an immigration policy, but that’s not a real threat. It is a real problem that children are taken away from their mothers and fathers.
What do you hope people get out of Shock And Awe?
That we need a free and independent press, a vigilant press, to hold power accountable so that we won’t go to war based on lies. The second thing is to realise what the cost is of not having a free and independent press. What will the cost be? Not only people’s quality of life and lost lives, but the erosion of our democracy.
Shock And Awe stars Rob Reiner, Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Biel.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A Memoir Of A Life Unhinged And On The Record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and visit AllisonKugel.com.