You’d be forgiven for thinking The Report would be a dull viewing experience. Yes, it may be about someone creating a 7000-page report, but it never feels like it. In a film loaded with compelling conflict and fantastic performances, that’s possibly the best endorsement for it I can give.
The Report details the journey to the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture in 2012. It’s post-9/11 and the United States had just been attacked because its multitude of defence agencies didn’t see the threat in time—the CIA did not take it well. They decided to take up an ‘enhanced interrogation program’—which is essentially an upmarket code for torture.
The Senate investigation was overseen by the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), with the research spearheaded by committed staffer Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver). The report itself contained controversial information about the CIA’s torture program, but it was getting the information to the public that proved to be the real challenge.
Scott Z. Burns is a writer-director who hails from the school of Steven Soderbergh, having written four of his films including The Informant!, Contagion, Side Effects and most recently, The Laundromat. He makes an interesting narrative choice in that his screenplay is wholly centred around the characters’ actions within the framework of this controversy. It reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in the way that these characters are defined solely through their actions within their field of work. We’re never subject to Jones’ home life or how his rigorous efforts in uncovering this information took a toll on his family. It’s a risky choice but it also would’ve been the easy choice, and in that way I’m glad Burns never wavers from the sole focus of this story. In a film so loaded with political jargon and information, everything feels vital. Any semblance of laidback moments are nearly impossible to come by. It goes far in creating a palpable sense of stress and urgency.
Adam Driver proves for the umpteenth time that he’s one of the best actors of his generation. He brings the same hyper-driven tendencies to Jones that he brought to the character of Flip Zimmerman in BlacKkKlansman last year—a role which netted him his first Academy Award nomination. You can even feel the same untethered anger in The Report that he brings to Kylo Ren in the Star Wars franchise. Jones is completely out of his league, yet it’s his incredibly strong will, pure determination and drive which keep him on this case for so many years despite many of his colleagues leaving him along the way.
We see Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and the TV series 24 both get openly slandered in terms of realism, and with what is uncovered surrounding the immense torture that was committed by the CIA, it’s easy to understand why. The first half of the film takes place when the Bush administration was in power and it obviously takes the stance of holding the Republicans responsible, but the narrative takes more of a turn when the Democrats gain power and they’re more eager to appease the Republicans than getting all of this information to the public. Not knowing the outcome of this story gave it more dramatic tension than I had ever expected.
Due to the nature of this story, Burns has to have characters deliver copious amounts of exposition in many scenes. However, the secret to it not feeling like expository dialogue is that there’s a constant sense of conflict within the narrative and Burns keeps his dialogue extremely sharp. Jones is constantly on the backfoot and it’s seeing the constant conflict with the CIA and the government which makes an overly expository film become engaging. Occasionally it can resort to being heavy on speeches with inspirational score underneath, but it establishes so much compelling drama that I could slightly forgive some of the film’s more generic tendencies.
All of the enhanced interrogation footage is dirty, grimy and lacks any sort of sugar coating—as it should be. Burns never makes this story easy to consume and never makes the CIA look like anything better than what they are. Every government black site feels gross and utterly disturbing. Whether that’s wholly accurate or not, I can’t say for certain, but it perfectly gives the film a sense of dread. The CIA didn’t want to just gain information; they wanted to hurt these captives to no end. This was a country that wanted revenge.
Visually, it doesn’t exactly have the same panache of what David Fincher brought to a procedural like Zodiac, nor does it have the propulsive energy of Soderbergh’s directorial work, but Burns is able to take a narrative which could easily be overloaded with the mundanities and instead turns it into something very disturbing. Even the office that Jones works out of feels desolate and unnerving from a visual standpoint.
Along with the exemplary work from Driver, Annette Bening delivers a fierce performance as Feinstein, continuing to deliver great work. While only having a minimal amount of screen time, Tim Blake Nelson is also a major standout.
One could easily expect The Report to be a series of endless back-and-forth, mundane jargon-loaded conversations—and yes there’s a lot of them—but seeing Adam Driver constantly provide a commanding presence elevates proceedings tenfold. Burns takes what could be dry material and injects real conflict and intrigue into nearly every conversation. Along with that, it’s one of the angriest films I’ve seen this year and it’s also one of the most important. Similar to The Nightingale which was released earlier in 2019, The Report is about something that has been in many ways hidden under the carpet. Something as disturbing as what the CIA did shouldn’t be kept a secret. It’s a story that more of the public should be exposed to, and I’m glad that this has given it that exposure.
The Report is showing for a limited season at Luna Leederville from November 14 to 17.