As someone who has spent a storied journalism career capturing other people’s stories, John Walcott never envisioned himself being the center of attention. For this reason, it was pretty surprising when he got a call a couple years ago about a movie in development that was partially based on his work reporting on the false intelligence that led to the U.S. invasion Iraq in 2003.
“It was a major experience and a strange one,” said Walcott at a speaking engagement this past Wednesday. “What you do when you get a call out of the blue and the person on the other end of the phone says, ‘I had Rob Reiner for you,’ and I said to myself, ‘Meathead is calling me?’”
Walcott spoke in front of a full room at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church this past Wednesday about his experiences as a consultant on the Rob Reiner film “Shock and Awe.” In discussions during and after the film, John Walcott talked about his experiences uncovering the story and answered questions on what the film says about the political climate today.
Walcott, who has been a member of Lewinsville Presbyterian for 42 years, was awarded the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Excellence for his team’s work reporting on the government’s misleading intelligence in the build-up to the Iraq invasion. At the time, he was the Washington bureau chief for Knight Ridder Inc. His editor Joe Galloway (played by Tommy Lee Jones) and reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel (played by Woody Harrelson and John Landay respectively) were also key figures in the story and they all received equal billing in the film.
Walcott recalled that the process began with Reiner inviting the four principals of the story to the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Georgetown to hear them talk about their story. According to Walcott, Reiner was primarily concerned if they were interesting enough as characters to carry a story.
During production, John Walcott and wife Nancy were invited to visit the set in New Orleans. Although most of the question and answer session was conducted by John, Nancy stepped in at one point to regale the crowd with highlights of the set visit. According to Nancy, James Marsden was the resident on hunk (she characterized him as “prince charming handsome”) commanding the most selfies, while Woody Harrelson was the friendliest.
“Woody is like this t-shirt cannon who shoots happiness into the lives of people he doesn’t know,” Nancy Walcott said.
Although the question and answer session with John had some moments of levity, he largely answered questions about his fact-finding experiences and the state of journalism and politics today. In the simplest terms, Walcott characterized his team as a group of people who asked questions and worked to cultivate sources.
“If there are real heroes in the movies, it’s not the reporters, it’s the people who stuck their necks out and tell us the truth,” he said.
Like Mark Felt with the Nixon administration (who went under the pseudonym “Deep Throat”), all of his sources’ identities were protected and still hold that status. Only one has self-identified since.
When asked why his team got the story right when others got it wrong, Walcott responded that a lot of people were taking government press releases at face value without being critical. He also expanded that a common mistake made at the time was to equate rank with knowledge in military reporting.
“It’s tempting for a journalist to say, ‘Whoah, I just spoke to the vice president today’ those aren’t the best sources for a variety of reasons,” he said. “It’s a lesson you learn in combat. I don’t want to talk to a colonel or the one-star general who’s bucking for a second star. Give me a staff sergeant or a sergeant first class.”
He also spoke of some negative pressure and credited people on the executive side for resisting that potential loss in advertising dollars.
“There was a lot of pressure from certain people who thought we were unpatriotic and certain corners of the US government, and that you ignore…. They’re entitled to their opinion,” Walcott said.
John Walcott, 69, is still working today as an Editor at Reuters and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. When comparing the differences in journalism between 2003 and the present, Walcott said that the industry is struggling a lot financially and there is a danger of articles that rely on “click bait.”
Walcott also said that partisan atmmosphere has increased among the public but said that discussions like the kind they were having in Church were important to resolving societal tensions.
“That’s why these gatherings are so important. It doesn’t matter what politics are [in Church], because we’re losing a lot in our society,” he said.
The screening and discussion was facilitated by congregant Pam Deese who had the same line of thought in mind when she invited the Walcotts to share their story.
“I know John, I know the community, we’re always look for opportunities for the community to have conversation,” said Deese.
The film “Shock and Awe” is influenced by films like “All the Presidents Men” and “Spotlight” in emphasizing the high stakes and tension of journalists pursuing an important story. The stories of the reporting team is also interspersed with a number of subplots to break up the tension: A light romantic subplot (starring Jessica Biel), and the point of view of a soldier (Luke Tennie) who is moved by post-9/11 wake of patriotism to enlist in the war and eventually becomes an off-the-record source for the story.
The film was briefly released in theaters this past July for Oscar consideration but it was generally designed for a home-viewing audience. It’s currently available on DVD, Amazon Prime and ITunes.