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The Reporting Before The Iraq War In 'Shock And Awe'


"Shock And Awe," the new film directed by Rob Reiner and written by Joey Hartstone, tells the true story of the run-up to the Iraq War. And it was a story that was only accurately reported by one journalistic outfit, Knight Ridder.


ROB REINER: (As John Walcott) If every other news organization wants to be stenographers for the Bush administration, let them. We don't write for people who send other people's kids to war. We write for people whose kids get sent to war.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a story that is personal to me, as I was a reporter in Iraq in the run-up to the invasion, and I covered the consequences for many years after as a Baghdad-based reporter. And joining us now to talk about the film are Rob Reiner and Joey Hartstone.

Welcome to the program.

REINER: Thanks for having us.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the title, "Shock And Awe," is about the Bush administration's bombing campaign in Iraq at the start of the war. So I'm going to start with you, Rob Reiner - why this story?

REINER: Well, you know, I wanted to tell this story in 2003, right when it was happening. You know, I was of draft age during the Vietnam War. And I just never thought in my lifetime we'd be heading into war based on lies, and I can see that unfolding. And I wanted to make a film. And first I thought maybe I'd do it as a satire, like a "Dr. Strangelove." But I could never get a good script that I liked. And then I saw this documentary by Bill Moyers where he interviewed these four journalists from Knight Ridder. And I had no idea. I didn't know...


REINER: ...About them. No because the...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They're kind of the unsung heroes, yeah. They...

REINER: Well, they are. I mean, the fact of the matter is they got it all right, and nobody paid attention.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joey Hartstone, the American public now knows it was misled into the Iraq War and that there were no WMDs. But Knight Ridder was alone, as Rob there said, in questioning the government about what it was doing. And you take us into the newsroom. What were you trying to show?

HARTSTONE: Mostly these four guys. And what struck me, I think, the most was that they were skeptical all along because I was 19 at the time of 9/11. And so I had just thought of it as, this was just a mistake that happened and, you know, unfortunately, we just didn't have all the information. And I think that was the big lesson from this story, was that the truth is usually out there. It is being given if you're willing to find it and listen. And it's not that we only need 20/20 hindsight to know what's right and wrong.


HARTSTONE: It's right there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. In many ways, this is a celebration of good journalism but also - and I think you make this pretty clear in the film - an indictment of many major news organizations who followed the drumbeat for war.

REINER: Yeah. I think that it's understandable at times because you do get swept up. But you have to go back to that single precept, which is - if the government says something, is it true? And right now, we're facing probably the greatest test of the fourth estate, you know, in my lifetime certainly, when you have good journalists that are working very hard to get to the truth. And they're coming up against headwinds of an alternative truth which is put out by another set of journalists. And so we're now debating what's true and what's not true.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I was about to ask you - I mean, you're a pretty vocal liberal. And...

REINER: What do you mean? (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you - yeah (laughter), what do I mean? Yeah...

REINER: What do you mean?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...I've seen you on Fox News.

REINER: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think this film has to tell us about this particular moment? Because you know, some people are nostalgic for the George W. Bush days.

REINER: Well, they might be nostalgic only because they like George W. Bush as a person. But I think that if we just stopped the Trump presidency now, you would have to say that the Bush presidency was worse in a way because, I mean, they invaded a country. And you know, hundreds of thousands of people died, and you know, trillions of dollars were spent. So we have to see - if in fact the Mueller investigation shows that they did conspire with a foreign enemy power, then I think you're going to say, OK, this is worse because you basically sold out American democracy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joey, did you write this for a particular audience in mind? I mean, obviously, you want the largest audience there. But some of the reviews in the press have suggested that this is maybe for people who may not remember or might have had a different point of view when this was happening.

HARTSTONE: No. I really - the first five people that I wanted to be my first audience were Rob and then the four journalists and make sure they agreed with how it was presented. But the weird thing was this was written in 2015 and filmed before the election. And so the audience was always, in my mind, going to be an audience in Hillary Clinton's America that just needed a little reminder that sometimes these things happen. And we wrapped shooting in New Orleans on Election Day.

REINER: Yeah...

HARTSTONE: And it changed.

REINER: ...We actually watched the election as we were finishing up shooting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Interesting.

REINER: And as Joey points out, you know, we're just talking about wanting to make sure that people understand how important journalism is to telling the truth and the consequences. You see what happens when you don't get the truth out to the American people, the consequences. As Tommy Lee Jones' character points out - when the government effs (ph) up, the soldiers pay the price.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you, Joey - and Rob - both of you, you know, so many films about Iraq are about the U.S. military and their sacrifice. And I know that's important. But they never seem to note the catastrophe unleashed on Iraq was really more impactful to the Iraqis themselves, who have yet to recover in a war that's ongoing in many ways. Why do we never tell that story on the big screen?

REINER: Of course, there should be, you know, a film made about that. But Americans can't make a film about that until Americans agree that we were lied into a war. Nobody made a film about that. I mean, there were wonderful films made about Iraq. You know, there's "Hurt Locker." There's "American Sniper." But none of them, to me, took on the main issue from an American standpoint, which is - why are we pushing our way of life, you know, into other people's backyards at the point of a gun? Now, once we acknowledge that that is not the way to export democracy, then you can get into the war-is-hell of it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's also about humanizing the other and including them in a narrative. And I do have to say I rarely see it. I'll also say that, you know, Knight Ridder journalists who covered Iraq during a lot of the war were Arab-American women - Hannah Allam, also Leila Fadel who now works for NPR. And some of the problems I see with the way we tell these stories is that they focus on a sort of very simple narrative.

REINER: Yeah. And I think that, you know, it depends on what subject matter you're taking on. I would be presumptuous to tell a story about what Iraqis went through; that should be an Iraqi filmmaker. And maybe this film opens the door to that because - listen, I got enough criticism for making a movie about the reinvestigation or reprosecution of Byron De La Beckwith, who killed Medgar Evers, because I wasn't black. So I just think that, you know, you have to tell a story about what you know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rob Reiner and Joey Hartstone - their film is "Shock And Awe," out now.

Thank you so much.

REINER: Thanks for having us.

HARTSTONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.