Rob Reiner’s important film faces review dogma
In the 2014 biographical war drama, director Clint Eastwood told the story of Chris Kyle, a US Navy SEAL sniper who has over 150 confirmed kills. Eastwood’s film received universal acclaim by professional reviewers. Rotten Tomato’s ‘Critics Consensus’ reads: “Powered by Clint Eastwood's sure-handed direction and a gripping central performance from Bradley Cooper, American Sniper delivers a tense, vivid tribute to its real-life subject.”
In real-life, however, Kyle hated the Iraqis with racist vitriol. He wrote about how he felt about killing an Iraqi woman, who was holding a grenade and whose village the US military was attacking. “I hated the damn savages I have been fighting,” he wrote in his book, on which the film was based. “Savage, despicable, evil. That's what we were fighting in Iraq,” he wrote. “I couldn’t give a flying [expletive] about the Iraqis,” the “most lethal sniper in US military history” further clarified.
Is it still a good movie if the filmmaker excels in crafting the narrative according to conventional critic-wisdom, but fails to acknowledge a greater truth?
But when reviewing the film, the only things mattered to the critics, almost like filling a list of checkboxes, were: ‘character development’, ‘moral ambiguity’, ‘artistically justifiable use of handheld camera’ and so on. These cinematic values may be the right tools for judging a film, but are they adequate? Is it still a good movie if the filmmaker excels in crafting the narrative according to conventional critic-wisdom, but fails to acknowledge a greater truth? Or conversely, can you call it a good film if a filmmaker does capture those greater truths but falls short in making the movie ‘dramatically compelling’?
Rob Reiner’s ‘Shock and Awe’ (2018) depicts Knight Ridder journalists Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay’s important work that correctly reported the discrepancies in the government intelligence on which the pretext for Iraq invasion was built. The film underwhelmed reviewers across the board because there was ‘too much explaining,’ (Ann Hornaday, Washington Post), ‘speechifying’ (Emily Yoshida, Vulture) and because it ‘feels dated’ (Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor) among many other reasons. Perhaps it is time to ask, at what point a lack of appreciation for the broader - or more appropriately - basic political realities becomes an impediment for judging a film? Given that the Iraq war literally changed face of the globe, it seems for ‘Shock and Awe’, a lack of such cognizance in the reviews should render its judgment faulty or at least, incomplete.
There is no doubt that Reiner and writer Joey Hartstone could have sacrificed some of the information dropping that admittedly sounded forced. But the viewers would not have been equipped with the facts that are necessary to appreciate the true gravity of the story. Sure, ‘Shock and Awe’ could be better. It’s difficult to say if it could have been more engaging without sacrificing its aspirations. It’s easy to see how it can be more entertaining and ‘artful’. But when a film deals with important contemporary events, in this case a pivotal moment for the whole world, a stubborn adherence to entertainment value seems misguided, even outright dangerous.