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Flicks and Politics: An Interview with Rob Reiner

Shock and Awe

Shock and Awe

By Ali Moosavi.

Rob Reiner is one of the most successful American directors working today. However, it’s difficult to pin him down to any particular genre or style of film making. He has made one of the greatest cult comedies of all time (This Is Spinal Tap, 1984), two of the best Stephen King adaptations (Stand By Me, 1988; Misery, 1990), a classic children’s fantasy movie (The Princess Bride, 1987), and two highlights of liberal social cinema (A Few Good Men, 1992; Ghosts of Mississippi, 1996) while cornering the market in romantic comedies (When Harry Met Sally, 1989; The American President, 1995; As Rumor Has It, 2005; And So It Goes, 2014).

Reiner has also acted in over 70 films and worked as a writer and producer. He is a partner in the film production company Castle Rock, which has produced all his films. With Movies part of the DNA of the Reiner family, his father, Carl Reiner, is also an actor, writer, producer, director. Even Rob Reiner’s mother made a name for herself just for uttering the one immortal line “I’ll have what she’s having” in When Harry Met Sally.

A glance a Reiner’s web profile shows him to be very politically active. He has actively campaigned for a number of democratic presidential candidates, considered running for California Governorship, is a co-founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, and much more. However, surprisingly his first overtly political film, LBJ, was only made in 2016. He has followed that a year later with Shock and Awe, based on the true story of a group of journalists trying to uncover the truth behind the “weapons of mass destruction” justification made by President Bush for going to war with Iraq.

Anyone who follows Reiner on Twitter knows that he is not, to put it mildly, a supporter of President Trump. This was very apparent when Film International sat with Reiner at the Dubai International Film Festival where Shock and Awe was being shown.

Your new film, Shock and Awe, highlights the role of press in uncovering the truth. What are your thoughts on the current state of press in the States?

Shock 02To be honest with you, I’m scared. Presidents have always utilized propaganda to push a policy or reason for a war. This is the first time in American history where there is a big chunk of the press: Fox News, Sinclair outlets, Breitbart, doing a lot of heavy lifting for the president. You’ve got the mainstream media under attack. So there are pillars of American democracy that are starting to fray. We have a Congress which is unwilling to look at a president who, when he put his hand on The Bible, violated the Constitution of the United States of America; enriching himself from foreign countries. No president has done that with such abandon. And he’s right out there doing it. You’ve got a court system that he is trying to erode. The only world leaders he seems to like are authoritarians like Duterte, Erdogan and Putin. Germany and France and Great Britain, he trashes. So it’s a scary time.

It’s a great experiment this idea of democracy. American democracy started 241 years ago by people who were trying to find a new way of governing. Great civilizations last anything between 250 and 300 years. We are at 241. The question is: will we be able to survive? Now, Robert Mueller is doing his work trying to get to the bottom of all the coordination that Trump has done with the Russians and it’s all starting to come out. But, there is a tremendous effort right now to denigrate Mueller and the FBI and everything that we hold dear as our law enforcement. We’ve seen this in the past with dictators. The founding fathers put a system in place that was supposed to prevent dictators or royalty. We broke away from Great Britain because we did not want to be ruled by a king. We wanted the people to rule the country and have a say. This is the first time that those ideas are being tested in a big way. I know there are a lot of people out there who are fighting very hard to preserve what we have. What we have now are forces that we have never seen before in our history.

The American democracy survived a cold war with the Soviet Union. Soviet Union collapsed and America was the last remaining super power. Putin comes along and takes over this country when the collapse happens.  Over a period of time, Putin has started a clandestine cyber war, that was undetectable at first. What he has done is that, in a very inexpensive way, is invading America. The thing that is scary about this is what I call “Stupid Watergate”. Because, in Watergate we had to figure out what was going on. Here, it’s right out there! They say what they have done. He is tweeting it! And we’re sitting here saying we’ve got to connect the dots. There is no connecting dots. It’s all one big dot! It’s there. You can see it. So it’s scary because we know collusion is taking place.

That is why, to me, Shock and Awe could be valuable. It’s about how the press fights so hard to get the truth out. There is one line we have in the film which, for me, is the most important line in the film. It says that when the government says something, a journalist has only one question to ask: is it true? That’s it. We all know that we were lied to in order to go to war in Iraq. It was all one big lie. And I, as someone who was drafted during the Vietnam War, never thought my country would go to war twice based on lies. Even though there were more people killed in the Vietnam War, to me Iraq was a greater foreign policy disaster, because of what it unleashed.

You cannot promote ideology at the point of a gun. If you believe that your democratic way of life is the best way of life, then go by example.  And people will either say I like it or I don’t like it. But you can’t force somebody to accept your way of life. It doesn’t work. And that’s what we try to do.

We explain it in Shock and Awe. After we were the only remaining superpower, there were a bunch of guys called Neocons. They were mostly Jewish guys who had been liberals and they were saying: what is the best way to use this American power? So they said if we can create a western style democracy in other places, similar to what we have, that will proliferate. People will say: oh, that’s good. They were going after Iraq even before 9/11. It was all written in this Project for New American Century. It’s William Kristol and Richard Perle and Doug Feith and all these guys. They wrote this treatise saying: Iraq is the place to go! What kind of crazy thinking is that?! The whole point of the film is to show journalists have a place. You’ve got to keep fighting for the truth and not let the government run Russia over you.

You’ve been politically active all your life, being a very committed Democrat. But had shied away from making an overtly political film till LBJ in 2016.

Princess Bride

The Princess Bride

Well, I made Ghosts of Mississippi which is all about race relations. I did American President and A Few Good Men which had political overtones. But overtly political, yes, LBJ was the first one and Shock and Awe is political as well.

Has it been due to lack of suitable material?

No, I think first of all you have to learn as you live and grow. You learn what you think of the world you live in and what you want to say about it. Then you can put it out there. I’ve done that in a couple of films and probably will do the same again, if they let me. But I’m afraid they’ll take the camera away from me!

There must be enough material now with this Russia business.

Oh, my God! This Russian thing is fascinating; what he’s been able to pull off.

Does cinema have a more important role now?

Yes. Cinema has always been important as a contributor to conversations and dialog. I don’t believe that cinema can magically change anything but it will always be part of the dialog. In particular, if you are going to make a fil that has historical impact, you have to do your homework and be accurate. Hopefully you will have something to say that people can talk about. Right now, there is a lot to talk about.

For me, the thing that runs through your films is that they are all character driven and with strong narrative. Are those what you look for in a film?

Yes. I am an actor and I come to directing as an actor. To me, the best and most interesting films are the ones that are character driven. The ones that have to do with human interaction and the human condition. So, I always look for those kinds of things.

Have you not thought about making another mockumentary? You invented that genre!

(Laughs) Yes, we invented it and a lot of people are doing it. Christopher Guest did a lot of them for our company, Castle Rock. He’s great at it.

Was there any scene in Spinal Tap that you really liked and didn’t make the final cut?

Spinal Tap

This is Spinal Tap

There was a scene where it took a long, long time to get the joke. If you notice in the film, there is a shot where one band member has a herpes sore on his lip and the camera pans to the other guy and he’s got a herpes sore too. We had a section of the film where there was a band called The Dose, that opened the film. They were like a punk band and it was headed by Cherie Currie who was in the rock band The Runaways. There was a scene where one of the band members was dating her and next thing he’s got the herpes sore. And then the other one is dating her and he’s got the thing. And then we had a scene where all five members of the band are sitting around having a band meeting. Four people have the thing and they are saying: maybe we should drop The Dose from the tour. The drummer, who is the only one who hasn’t got the thing says, “I like them, I think they’re cool, we should keep them!” It took a long time to tell that joke and we took it out. What has remained is two guys with the sore.

Which film is quoted to you more, When Harry Met Sally, Princess Bride, or This Is Spinal Tap?

RR:  All of them! When Harry Met Sally because my mother says “I’ll have what she’s having!” Princess Bride: “Inconceivable!” and “My name is Inigo.” They say all these things.

Oh, I’ve got to tell you this great story about Spinal Tap. I was at a party years ago and Elon Musk (billionaire founder of Tesla cars) comes to the party and he’s got this new car. I had never seen a car like that. It was the first Tesla. He says it’s a new car which I’m putting out next year. He then says let me show you something. So, we get in the car and I sit down in the passenger seat. He turns the radio on and it goes to 11! I said wow! And he said I love the movie and this is in every Tesla. They all go up to 11!

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine(Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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