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The chaos in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led our intelligence community down dark paths, and new political procedural The Report is about how dangerous and destructive those paths really were. This is the directorial debut of Scott Z. Burns, a screenwriter and frequent collaborator with Steven Soderbergh, and his film’s dogged intelligence is unique.
Unlike All the President’s Men, a film with similar scale, there are no celebrity journalists at the center of this story. Burns counts on you following him through the unglamorous minutiae of bureaucracy and the intelligence community. By denying his characters any backstory, the film’s moral clarity and desire for the truth send the audience through a dense, dizzying story.
Adam Driver plays Daniel J. Jones, a former staffer for the Senate intelligence committee. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) asks him to look into interrogation tapes the CIA destroyed. It is a simple enough request, except Jones is so single-minded that his investigation takes five years to complete. The CIA cooperates with the investigation, supplying Jones and his team with a secure room and raw intelligence, and he uncovers widespread use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”—torture.
Burns films this investigation in a clinical way, using Jones’ dot-connecting as the basis for where to cut and put the camera. The Report understands that D.C. isn’t always about power lunches and floor speeches; instead, most of the work in this city is thankless, with researchers and anonymous regulators grinding out change while the public never notices. The torture scenes are a bracing rejoinder to the anonymity of Jones’ work: With queasy handheld close-ups, the camera lingers on detainees as they’re humiliated, waterboarded, and worse. All this detail emboldens Jones, making him a crusader for the truth.
The inauguration of President Barack Obama is an unexpected complication, and this is where The Report finds its true purpose. Yes, these interrogations happened under Bush, but the film reveals how the administrative state has a vested interest to keep the breadth of its power a secret. Jon Hamm plays Denis McDonough, Obama’s former chief of staff, and he has the awkward position of defending the president from a scandal that did not happen under his watch. Feinstein and Jones argue the truth is the only way out of this quagmire, except they face increasingly bad odds.
Between The Report and Marriage Story, Adam Driver is having a hell of a year. As Jones, his performance is not particularly showy, and yet he achieves something inherently difficult: He makes research and writing look cinematic. As the release of the report looks increasingly unlikely, Driver’s dogged idealism is all the more brave, and yet the performance eschews traditional heroism. Perhaps Jones realizes that if he stops pushing, then no one else will. What makes The Report so fascinating is that all the supporting characters, even the compromised CIA interrogators, are heroes of their own story. Burns’ script has enough nuance to convey that everyone feels they are doing the right thing.
The key relationship in this film is between Jones and Feinstein. Bening’s work is quietly stunning. She comes off as chilly, even cruel, but she’s undeniably a shrewd, calculating leader—and she ultimately gets what she wants. By the time the film reaches its conclusion, with Feinstein only providing a few words of appreciation, the subtext suggests those words mean the world to Jones. Few bosses are ever effusive, especially in Washington, so The Report goes to show you have to be a little nuts to work this hard with so little reward.
The Report ensures that audiences will not forget what was done in America’s name, and what we lost in the process. Like Jones’ investigation, this procedural might sound too dry, but in Burns and Driver’s hands, it is ferocious.
The Report opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.