Midway through The Report, writer-director Scott Z. Burns’ firebrand account of a congressional study into the CIA’s use of torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques”), Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) cannot believe his eyes. Bleary and exhausted as the Senate’s lead investigator, he’s staring at a television screen which is advertising a new Hollywood movie with awards season buzz: Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Marketed as the movie about “how we got bin Laden,” it is also the latest and flashiest twist in a media narrative that suggests “EIT” torture sessions provided actionable intelligence. The problem, however, is that narrative’s a myth; and even then, torture remains illegal.
At this point in 2012, about halfway into what became a grueling six-year investigation, it seemed like only Jones and a few of his most dogged colleagues in a Capitol Hill office cared. That maddening incredulity at matters of life and death, morality and criminality, getting blurred is Burns’ scathing critique of the whole system, including Zero Dark Thirty, and it’s also the singular setting of righteous indignation coursing throughout The Report’s entire runtime. The results are a movie that sets the record straight, but one that, like Jones, is so outraged that it will struggle to keep all audiences invested for the whole journey.
Those who are, however, will gain two tremendous assets in the performances of Driver as Jones and Annette Bening as Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Already flush with power after the Democrats won a U.S. Senate majority in 2006, Feinstein begins the movie with what feels like a fresh start in 2009. Barack Obama has just been sworn in as President of the United States, and she hopes the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that she chairs will finally be able to bring light and accountability to the shadowy methods employed by the CIA, and with the White House’s blessing, during the George W. Bush administration.
She appoints Dan, a committee staff member and research wunderkind, to lead what should be a bipartisan reach toward the truth. It does not play out that way. Most of the Republicans become immediately recalcitrant to anything Democrats pursue, particularly if the Obama White House is on board. However, much to Jones and Feinstein’s dismay, the White House is fairly hands off. At first. As the CIA refuses to allow any staff or employees of the agency to cooperate with the study, the legislative branch finds itself isolated and poring over millions of emails and inter-agency documentation. Then as new CIA Director John Brennan (Ted Levine) becomes openly antagonistic of the committee—to the point of suggesting a criminal investigation into Jones—Dan finds himself fighting as much against the pressure of Obama’s White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm) as he is CIA lawyers.
All of these pressures form a Gordian knot of national security complexities around Jones, but as a film it bears a striking resemblance to a cross on which he’s being nailed. And that appears to be a fair assessment from Burns since Jones’ tenacious demands for transparency feel like ancient history only five years after the report was finally released.
Depicting that crucible with the same deftness for trenchant bureaucracy that he used to thrilling effect in the screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, Burns crafts a cogent and illuminating depiction of the CIA and Bush administration’s rationalizations for the irrational. Indeed, long before the Senate’s report, the agency had already concluded that not a single round of waterboarding had resulted in new intelligence—the crux of Bush lawyer John Yoo’s phony pretense that torture can be legal—yet the wagons remained circled for years, from Langley to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Nonetheless, it is fair to posit while Burns offers a solid dramatization of the documentation, it can be somewhat wanting as a work of narrative fiction. In fact, it is Driver’s sweltering performance and Bening’s reassuringly hushed one that allows the film to be anything more than a despairing civics lesson. Driver spends the full two hours of the movie alternating between pugnacious certitude and furiously pounding the table at the lunacy of it all, and yet he always finds a way to make each moment fresh, and every disbelief exasperating. Bening is likewise superb as a senator who’s been playing the long game all her life, yet even her unflappable politician’s veneer can reach its limit in this circus.
However, the scenes between their conversations become little more than a vehicle to convey the biggest details of the select committee’s findings, which is often achieved by an interchangeable series of shouting match in windowless rooms. Dan is right to point out that the Obama White House needs to do more than just end torture, but the cyclical nature of his hell also creates a narrative that circles back on itself rather than rising to fiery relief or cataclysm.
I suspect that is closer to what it is like trying to circumvent the Sisyphean labyrinth of an uncooperative government agency, but it also makes for a good argument for the Adam McKay approach; he used gallows humor and meta-irony while treading similar ground to more digestible effect in last year’s Vice. It is also why, even with its insidious historical inaccuracies, Zero Dark Thirty was so compelling as a thriller.
As pure cinema, The Report is a worthwhile effort but one that will only appeal to those already fascinated with the truths hidden, and the horrors enacted, during a time of extreme paranoia. For those allergic to the truth, it will be as easily ignored as the buckets of hard facts being evaded each day in the U.S. House. Ironically, many of those patriotic lifelong public servants that resisted Senate oversight are now sounding the alarm of executive malfeasance—only to find that millions of Americans, including its leaders, have grown comfortable looking the other way.
The Report opens in select theaters on Nov. 15 and premieres on Amazon Prime on Nov. 29.