‘Shock and Awe’ tells story of Knight Ridder pre-Iraq war coverage

Key Bush administration officials essentially play themselves — through the extensive news clips used — in “Shock and Awe,” a movie which documents the run-up to the Iraq war, and Knight Ridder’s heroic role in vigorously probing the motivations behind it — in a pretty banal, heavy-handed manner.

Director Rob Reiner takes a supporting part for himself as editor John Walcott, who prods his two ace reporters, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel (played by Woody Harrelson and James Marsden, respectively) to keep pushing their sources and not be “stenographers for the Bush administration.”

Walcott also recruits the well-connected columnist Joe Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones, in a too-small role), who assists in digging up whistle blowers. In the process, the newspaper chain’s D.C. bureau often stood alone in its reporting, while outlets like the New York Times — led by reporter Judith Miller — assisted Bush officials in making their case.

“Are they trying to figure out if there’s any truth to their theory, or are they already convinced that their theory’s true?” Strobel asks, referring to the specious connection between Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction.

Working from a script by Joey Hartstone (who also wrote Reiner’s recent film “LBJ”), the director seeks to drive home the stakes with the framing device of a single soldier (Luke Tennie), one who enlisted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Hammering home that point, “Shock and Awe” notes that the Knight Ridder papers were reporting for the people whose kids get shipped off to fight, not the D.C. bigshots who send them into harm’s way.

The movie, inevitably, comes in the tradition of fare about the nobility of newspaper reporting, especially when (as in the case of “Spotlight”) those journalists are bucking against powerful institutions and other media outlets that have shirked their duty, for reasons that range from timidity to competitive spite.

The timing, moreover, won’t go unnoticed by those who see journalism under siege by the current president, or a greater sense of generosity even among liberals toward George W. Bush by comparison.

To that latter group, Reiner punctuates the film with a litany of dubious greatest hits, from Bush’s “Access of evil” speech to Vice President Dick Cheney’s “greeted as liberators” remark to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld saying that a war in Iraq “could last six days, six weeks, I doubt six months.”

For all that, “Shock and Awe” (which was made available on demand prior to its theatrical release) is a slim, at-times too-obvious portrayal of an important story, as well as the fundamental calling of journalism when it comes to holding the powerful to account.

By that measure, it’s an earnest but not particularly awe-inspiring as a movie, and even as a treatise on reporters doggedly pursuing the truth in the face of obfuscation and denials, nor is it especially shocking.

“Shock and Awe” will open in theaters on July 13. It’s currently available on demand.