Why Rob Reiner Won't Make Comedies in the Trump Era

Rob Reiner is not a happy fellow these days. The actor, writer, director and practically full-time political activist is disgusted by the world, and in particular, America’s current place in it—a place he sincerely believes is only a degree or two away from total breakdown. Democracy itself, he says, is under threat of extinction; everybody knows things are bad, his Republican friends included, but nobody knows how to fix them. As for the people who like the country the way it is under Trump, Reiner feels they’re pretty much lost causes: “I don’t know if you can reach those people,” he tells Playboy by phone one afternoon this week, on the eve of the release of his latest movie. He’s just made one of the most political films of his career, but he has no illusions about who he hopes to affect with it.

That movie, Shock and Awe, is a dramatic thriller about the news reporters for American media conglomerate Knight Ridder who investigated George W. Bush’s spurious justifications for the invasion of Iraq. Hitting theaters July 13 and starring Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones and James Marsden, it's a juiced-up journalistic yarn in the spirit of Spotlight and The Post that aims to reaffirm the importance of the free press at a time when the entire field is under attack.

But while Bush Jr. is the subject, the subtext pertains plainly to the modern-day: This is a movie for the Fake News era, a defense of what shouldn’t need defending but for the White House’s fondness for Fox and the arcane magic of “alternative facts.” For Reiner, whose previous film was last year's political drama LBJ, it’s a matter of urgency. The director of such delightful classics as This Is Spinal TapThe Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally… can’t work like that anymore—a whole lot has to change before he’s happy enough.

If you’ll permit me to start with a somewhat pretentious question … 
By all means. I love pretension. 

What responsibility do artists have to reflect the world around them? 
It’s not that you have a responsibility, per se: Artists can do all kinds of things. I personally think that the best art is art that does reflect the world around you. But I think that artists, if they’re going to take on a historical piece that’s set in actual history, then they do have a responsibility to make it accurate and make it true. That I take very seriously. That’s why the journalists we portray in Shock and Awe were intimately involved in every aspect of the production, from the script to being on the set while we were shooting. But in terms of just having the responsibility to reflect the world, artists can do anything they want—fantasy, horror, whatever they feel compelled to do. I feel like I want to at least reflect how I view the world and my experiences, and I try to get that into my films. 

Are there times when it’s harder to make other kinds of films? To make a fantasy in the time of Trump? 
I certainly think now it would be very hard to do that again—because me, personally, I feel like democracy is under attack right now, and whether it will survive in the next few years, we’re gonna have to wait and see. At a time as important as that, it’s very hard for me to just do some light and frothy comedy. It’s very tough when every day, you wake up, and the things you have cherished about this country for so long are being eroded. It’s disturbing. It’s hard to get your mind away from that. 

Of course, in the '30s, during the height of the depression, the most popular movies were screwball comedies. So, clearly, some people make art to deal with the problems the other way: by providing an escape.
Oh, yes. I think you can do escapist-type things. Of course you can. It’s just hard for me. I would never say that all filmmakers have to be this way or that way. Everybody has things that they care about and want to talk about; not everyone is as overwhelmed as I have been in the last couple of years. But I’m hoping there will be a lighter day to come, and that I can get back to making something a little lighter.

You mentioned a responsibility to historical accuracy. How difficult was it in Shock and Awe to be accurate to the perspective of the time? We know a lot more now about the supposed WMDs than we did then.
Well, I think this is more of a cautionary tale: If the press is not gonna do their job—which is to ask of the people in power whether what they’re telling us is true—if the press is not gonna follow that basic tenet of journalism, then you wind up with a democracy that starts to get eroded. For those of us who looked at this situation prior to the invasion of March of 2003, it made no sense. Yes, there was a rationale about WMDs, and [of,] “It’s gonna get in the hands of terrorists.” They played upon our fears because we had just been traumatized by 9/11. But if you knew the idea had already been to go into Iraq, that it was laid out by neocons long before 9/11 happened, then you knew it was a setup.

In your film, that feeling that the explanations don’t make sense is what leads your heroes to discover the truth.
Exactly. When 9/11 happened, these guys, the Knight Ridder guys, they found out the Bush administration had been planning to go to Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. It was crazy. Why are they talking about Iraq? We’ve just been attacked by Al Qaeda, who were housed by Afghanistan. People who looked into this realized it was a false rationale and that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11.

It wasn’t just a false rationale. It was false information.
There was a lot of false reporting. The whole thing about the aluminum tubes. The whole rationale of going to war was really suspect. But the whole country had been shocked and traumatized, remember. Nobody wanted to look unpatriotic. Major news outlets that would normally have asked whether it was true, that ethos kind of went away. It was all there if you wanted to figure it out. That’s something that the press wrestles with all the time.
And you see that struggle today, still?
All the time. During the recent presidential campaign and during the primaries, the mainstream press never thought Donald Trump was going to get nominated. They didn’t think he would win. So there wasn’t the kind of due diligence spent on him as there was on Hillary [Clinton]'s emails. Now, today, a big chunk of the press is working really hard to get the truth out because people are beginning to feel that democracy is being eroded, and it could go away. And unfortunately, it’s not just getting pushback from the Trump administration, but they’re getting backed up by what is essentially state-run media, with Fox and Breitbart and even Alex Jones.

So it’s even worse for journalists now?
The headwinds they faced after 9/11 were tough, but I would suggest the headwinds are even tougher now. The press is being called the enemy of the people, and fake news. The rule of law is being attacked. The press needs to work even harder now if we’re going to protect democracy.

Because the right has this idiotic term “fake news,” it’s extremely easy for them to dismiss facts—which makes journalism feel sort of pointless. It often feels as if no one cares.
Certainly, 40 percent of the country doesn’t care—and I don’t know that you can ever reach those people. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t keep trying. If you give up, if you stop trying, that 40 percent gets more and more emboldened. There’s no guarantee that democracy lasts forever. No society lasts forever. The sweet spot of every great civilization is 250-300 years. We’re at 242. Who knows? Hopefully, the institutions will hold; right now, the courts are holding.

What’s the result of the decline? Anarchy?
When you’ve got no checks and balances, you’ve got the makings of an autocracy. That’s where we are now. From the journalist’s standpoint, you have to keep trying. If you give up, you’re ceding ground to the “alternative facts.” The reality is there are no alternative facts. There are just facts. So you have to keep plugging away.

We already know that members of the Trump campaign did conspire with Russia. We know that. They’re guilty. The question is, can they connect Trump to it? The other question is, when all this comes out, will it be discounted? It will definitely be discounted by 40 percent of the country. But will it be discounted enough that we don’t, as a country, act on this? And if we don’t, we’re basically saying it’s OK to have an autocrat in our country. The importance of the press is greater than ever.
All this film says is the truth. It’s not partisan. If Bill Clinton had done this, I’d be making the same film.
Do you worry, if the 40 percent are unpersuadable, that what you’re doing with a film like this is sort of ineffectual? Are you making a partisan film, in a way, and merely preaching to the converted?
I don’t think there’s anything partisan about this film. All this film says is the truth. It’s not partisan. If Bill Clinton had done this, I’d be making the same film. There is either truth, or there isn’t truth. Truth is not a partisan thing. It’s either true or not.

Right, but people make it partisan. Global warming is a fact, but it’s still a partisan issue because people deny it.
Yes, we are living in a partisan world, so regardless of what the hell I say, they will call me a “libtard,” or whatever they want to call me. They call me that often. Now, I do have liberal views. There’s no question about it. But I have a lot of principled conservative friends—like David Frum, certain people I talk to—who are very upset by what’s happening and see that our democracy is getting perverted, and they see a president that’s sucking up to dictators. It becomes partisan because there are a lot of weak-kneed people. If we survive all this, and we preserve democracy, the Republican leadership is going to have a lot to answer for.

What about back in 2003? Did your conservative friends support the invasion of Iraq?
My liberal friends were pro-Iraq! The only people against America going to Iraq were the whole rest of the world. Every single country on Earth thought it was a terrible idea, except us. I tell you, when I did a screening of this film in Zurich recently, it got a standing ovation. They couldn’t believe an American was admitting that this is what the country actually did.

To wrap up, I wanted to touch on something bold in the film: You’re critical of the patriotism that emerged after 9/11. Is it patriotism that got us where we are today?
Let me put it this way: I think we’re fighting the last battle of the Civil War. There are patriots on both sides. On the one side, you have patriots saying, "We don’t want any immigrants, we don’t want people coming here because that’s not the pure America—we just want a white America." And then you have partisans on the other side saying, "No, we need to welcome immigrants because America is diverse and is a free society and a wonderfully heterogeneous, strong country." This is a country divided. That’s what it was like in the Civil War, and they started fighting each other over it. I hope it doesn’t devolve into actual war. But that’s the truth: ideologically, there is a civil war going on in this country.

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