As one of the most successful multi-hyphenates in Hollywood, actor-writer-producer-director Rob Reiner has been associated with many of TV and cinema’s most iconic titles, from “All in the Family” and “This Is Spinal Tap” to “Stand by Me,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Princess Bride” and “A Few Good Men.”
With his latest project, “Shock and Awe,” set between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Reiner tells the true story of journalists who proved the George W. Bush administration fabricated the existence of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to rationalize going to war.
The film, which took Reiner 15 years to make, stars Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson and James Marsden as Knight Ridder newspaper reporters Joe Galloway, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel. Reiner stars as Washington Bureau Chief John Walcott.
“This was a film I wanted to make right after the invasion of Iraq,” Reiner, 71, told the Journal. “In 2003, I had an idea to maybe make it as a satire, like ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ and I worked with Larry Gelbart on the script, but we couldn’t get it the way I liked it. I tried again as a dramatic film and that didn’t work. Then I saw this documentary by Bill Moyers about these four journalists from Knight Ridder and thought, ‘This is perfect way into it.’ ”
The four reporters served as advisers on the film. “They were on the set when we shot the sequences with the journalists. They were intimately involved in the whole process,” Reiner said. “We tried to stay as close as possible to what actually happened. We wanted to expose the lies that got us into the war, show how difficult it was to get to the truth and show the tremendous cost of not getting that truth to the American people.”
Reiner did not intend to play Walcott, but Alec Baldwin dropped out two days before he was scheduled to shoot. Reiner’s wife, Michele, suggested that he step in. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m available and I work cheap. But I didn’t really want to do it because I don’t like acting and directing [at the same time]. Your focus is completely split,” Reiner said, although with “This Is Spinal Tap,” “And So It Goes,” and “Alex & Emma” he did both.
Before tackling the role, Reiner received another bit of spousal advice. “Michele said, ‘Try to be a little less Jewish.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I could do that. I’m a Jewish guy from the Bronx.’ ”
Reiner has often played Jewish characters, including Izzy Rosenblatt in “Primary Colors,” Sheldon Flender in “Bullets Over Broadway” and Max Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” And even though “All in the Family’s” Mike “Meathead” Stivic was Polish-American, “I saw him as Jewish,” Reiner said.
Although his parents, Carl and the late Estelle Reiner, were atheists, “they raised us as Jews from a cultural and historical standpoint,” Reiner said. “When other kids were going to Hebrew school, they had a rabbi come and teach the neighborhood kids Jewish history and Yiddish, and my grandmother spoke Yiddish in the house. We always celebrated Passover because that was a historical event.
“Jews have always placed a great emphasis on exploring the mind and education. Those things were impressed upon me, along with decency and how you treat your fellow man,” Reiner added, categorizing his current religious beliefs as humanistic. “I think we’re all part of the family of man. We’re all connected in a very profound way.”
A staunch advocate of liberal causes, Reiner worked to overturn California’s Proposition 8 and pave the way for marriage equality, and chaired the state’s First Five Commission to advocate for children under age 5.
“My mother was part of a group called Another Mother for Peace, an antiwar group during the Vietnam War. They had a famous poster that said, ‘War is unhealthy for children and other living things.’ My father marched in the moratorium [march against the Vietnam War],” he said. “There was a lot of discussion about civil rights around the table. I grew up in a household where these things were talked about.”
Reiner briefly considered running for governor in 2006 but he believes he can be more effective outside of elected office. “Right now, the only thing I’m thinking about is preserving democracy and putting the brakes on this creep toward authoritarianism,” he said.
“Creeping fascism is rearing its ugly head,” he said. “Jewish people certainly know what that’s like. You’re seeing the same kind of rhetoric coming out of [President Donald] Trump’s mouth. The idea of ‘the other’ being to blame for your misfortune is what Hitler spread. And it’s difficult for the mainstream media to break through the constant lies. I’m not saying what happened in Germany will happen, but there’s no guarantee that democracy survives. Right now, we see it slipping away from us at a pretty rapid pace.”
Reiner worries about the Supreme Court in the wake of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, and that the president has “completely destroyed our relationships with our allies [while] sucking up to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” he said. “The checks and balances that the Founding Fathers set up have been eroded, and the press is under attack. The country is going in a very strange direction.”
That’s why he feels more compelled to make films like “Shock and Awe” now. “I’m getting to that point in my life where I don’t know how many more TV shows or movies I’m going to do. So I want to be able to say as much as I can about how I view the world,” he said. “I’m trying to find ways of injecting my thoughts and ideas into the work.”
Reiner has two projects in development: a drama series for Paramount and a series based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book “The Nine,” about the Supreme Court. He doesn’t plan to act in either series as of now but wants to continue performing. His recent roles include playing Zooey Deschanel’s father on “New Girl” and a judge on “The Good Fight.”
“Creeping fascism is rearing its ugly head. I’m not saying what happened in Germany will happen, but there’s no guarantee that democracy survives. Right now, we see it slipping away from us at a pretty rapid pace.” — Rob Reiner
“I get a lot more satisfaction and pleasure out of directing, but I really do like to act. It’s like a vacation because you don’t have any pressure,” he said. “You don’t have to think about making a million decisions and you just get to play. It’s fun to do.”
As an actor, Reiner is proudest of being part of “All in the Family.” “It not only pushed the envelope, it destroyed the envelope,” he said. “It was groundbreaking. It dealt with real issues and it was funny.”
As a filmmaker, he said, “the one that meant the most to me was ‘Stand by Me,’ because it was most reflective of my personality and my sensibility. I met Michele during the making of ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ so that means a lot to me. And ‘The Princess Bride’ means a lot because it was my favorite book growing up.”
His show business icon father, now 96 and still working as an actor, director and writer, has always been his greatest inspiration. “Yes, there is the pressure of having to live up to certain things,” Reiner acknowledged. “But I admired him tremendously and looked up to him. I wanted to be like him.”
Reflecting on his career so far, Reiner said, “I like the fact that some of these movies I’ve made seem to be standing the test of time, but you never know. That’s up to other people to figure out. You just go along and hopefully do things that people enjoy and that make an impact on them somehow, and adds something to the experience of life on the planet.”
He believes “Shock and Awe” meets those criteria. “This movie means a lot to me. It’s not an easy one to watch, but it’s a cautionary tale of what we have to be vigilant about if we’re going to protect democracy,” Reiner said. “It’s an important film and I hope people see it.”
“Shock and Awe” opens in theaters July 13.