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, even today.
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 to pull just a handful of his credits.
Always an outspoken politico (his Twitter feed holds nothing back) and advocate for liberal and democratic values, Rob Reiner get more political with his upcoming 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 impetus for invading Iraq on March 20, 2003 in a military operation known as, of course, Shock and Awe.
Allison Kugel: Your film, 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?
Rob Reiner: 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 super power in the world. The question was, what to do with that power and what was the best way 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.
Allison Kugel: 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?
Rob Reiner: 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 fucks up, the soldiers pay the price.”
Allison Kugel: 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?
Rob Reiner: You make a very 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 fifteen 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 center. Like you say, as these media outlets have grown and become a part of much bigger corporate conglomerates, you’re right, 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?”
Allison Kugel: What are your main sources of news these days? Who do you trust?
Rob Reiner: 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.
Allison Kugel: 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?
Rob Reiner: 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.
Allison Kugel: Tell me about the research you did to prepare to play Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau Chief, John Walcott.
Rob Reiner: 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.
Allison Kugel: 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.
Rob Reiner: (Laughs) How was it a good idea?
Allison Kugel: Forty-three percent. That’s a lot of people. How do you reach those people with this film, Shock and Awe, and get them to watch it with an open mind?
Rob Reiner: 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 thirty-eight thousand [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.
Allison Kugel: 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?
Rob Reiner: 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 aluminum 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 aluminum 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.
Allison Kugel: And the Vietnam War?
Rob Reiner: The Vietnam War might have been different because at that time there was a fervor 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 very 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 weaponized when you talk about social media. It’s very 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.”
Allison Kugel: What was the atmosphere on set? Did the actors get into political conversations?
Rob Reiner: 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].
Allison Kugel: 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?
Rob Reiner: 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?
By: Allison Kugel
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.