Zurich Film Festival honors a filmmaker Rob Reiner whose versatile career has offered a lifetime of social justice.
In many ways, Rob Reiner has done for the family movie what Ken Burns has done for the documentary – his work is so central to the genre you might forget he exists. Reiner, of course, exercises a little more subtlety and style than Burns’ simple, slow pans on historical images, but the director prides himself on accessibility, which has resulted in a career of iconic films where his presence is hardly felt.
In the 1940’s, when the average American was seeing a movie a week in theaters almost many films became popular enough to feel culturally ubiquitous, but today, in an era of ever-increasing fragmentation and subcultural viewing, only a few movies become popular enough to give off the feeling that everyone has seen them – and Reiner’s are often these exceptions. The man probably holds to his credit the largest collection of classic one-liners still in use today, from Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” in A Few Good Men (1992) to any number of quips from his perennial classic The Princess Bride (1987) (“My name is Inigo Montoya…”).
In some cases, his films seem to stand outside the cinema, transcending the time and place they were made because they are instead seen as films of one’s personal history, films from your childhood. I found this to be the case even when they weren’t a part of my upbringing; this past summer I watched my new personal favorite of his, When Harry Met Sally (1989), for the first time and yet was struck by a feeling of nostalgia. I’d heard about the movie, or seen it referenced, so much in my youth that a reputation had preceded it.
But to say that this cultural prevalence, though impressive, is akin to great artistry is another matter. Reiner has been making runaway hits his whole life largely because there is little enigma or controversy to his work – and his trove of one-liners is largely thanks to his work with the best screenwriters in the business: Aaron Sorkin, Nora Ephron, William Goldman are just a few. Often, I watch Reiner’s work and wonder how he exists within it, beyond that subtle guiding hand that lodged his films into the center of our cultural consciousness.
Zurich Film Festival, later this month, will present Reiner with their “A Tribute to…” The award, which has previously been given to the likes of Michel Haneke, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Oliver Assayas. This lifetime achievement is reserved for filmmakers who have “influenced our film history significantly.” I was shocked when I saw this year’s award goes to the director of Spinal Tap (1984), to the meathead son-in-law from All in the Family.
Reiner has been making runaway hits largely because there is little enigma or controversy to his work, up until now.
The award follows the world premiere of Reiner’s new film, Shock and Awe, which will arrive in theaters this winter. A Spotlight-esque docu-drama, the film retells the story of four reporters at former news conglomerate Knight Ridder as they question U.S. military tactics in the wake of 9/11. In addition to directing, Reiner plays a small role as their editor-in-chief, one of the many people originally challenging the reporter’s skepticism that the United States’ invasion of Iraq, in search of Weapons of Mass Destruction, wasn’t what it seemed.
Thanks to the team at Knight Ridder, who successfully exposed the lack of evidence by the Bush Administration for invading, our entrance into war was not as unstoppably hawkish and entrenched as it could have been, but the national mourning of 9/11 has only now allowed us to begin fully understanding what happened in the wake of the terrorist attack, and why. George W. Bush’s legacy is still mired in contemporary politics, and the fact that the removal of decades has not completely reached us yet makes Reiner’s project an ambitious one.
Shock and Awe, in pitting protagonists against the U.S. military, has potential to be his first feature viewers could disagree with.
In honoring the man, however, Zurich is paying tribute to values which have often hidden behind his apolitical, uplifting films. Rob Reiner is a powerful progressive voice in Hollywood and has been putting his fame to good use. He led the charge on a cigarette tax in California that now raises millions of dollars for children with developmental disabilities, and he is a founding member of Americans for Equal Rights, an organization which filed the first lawsuit against California’s Proposition 8 and paved the way for the Supreme Court’s marriage equality verdict.
Understanding more of his personal history, it seems that Rob Reiner has, for perhaps the first time, let his passion for politics change the nature of his filmmaking – Shock and Awe, in pitting protagonists against the U.S. military, has potential to be his first feature viewers could disagree with. But this combination of Reiner’s political and artistic selves seems to be the reason for his accolades in Zurich, where the lifetime achievement honors the personage more than any single work. His is a far cry from any former recipient, directors often at the forefront of their craft or movement because he is so mainstream or beloved –but that could be the point. Rob Reiner has influenced our history significantly, whether you know it or not.