A bracing and unwaveringly journalistic dramatization of the largest investigative review in U.S. Senate history, “The Report” is so dry that it makes “Spotlight” feel like a Fellini movie by comparison. In isolated stretches, the rigor of Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay and the discipline of his direction can be enervating; if Robert Mueller were a filmmaker, this is the kind of clerical thriller he would make. And yet, the coolheaded patience of Burns’ approach is precisely what makes “The Report” so powerful in the end, not only as a lucid crystallization of our country’s recent political history, but also as an urgent reminder of how a world that prioritizes emotions over ethics will eat itself alive.
It’s easy to see why Senator Whitehouse thinks staffer Daniel Jones is the ideal candidate to lead a classified investigation into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program (more specifically: the use of torture on suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11). Jones is basically a Boy Scout. A graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a distinguished member of the FBI, and even a three-year Teach for America survivor who was able to handle seventh graders without losing his mind, Daniel is the kind of guy who could still run for president without having to delete any old tweets. Adam Driver, in a commanding lead performance, plays Daniel with the same moral velocity that he brought to “BlacKkKlansman” last year.
His casting also explains how Daniel was voted one of People Magazine’s 100 Most Eligible Bachelors before he even got involved in the “deep state,” but you won’t learn that bit of trivia from Burns’ film. You won’t hear anything about where Daniel was born, what his childhood was like, or what’s happening in his love life. He buys a souvenir snow globe at the beginning of the movie, but you’ll never learn who it was for — only that he forgot it under a chair after a meeting with future Obama appointee Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm).
“The Report” is barely a few minutes before in it follows Jones into the bowels of some windowless government facility, and into a basement office so confidential that not even the head of the CIA is allowed inside (for obvious reasons). One hundred hours of interrogation video has been destroyed, and it’s Daniel’s job to figure out what the government was trying to hide. Daniel doesn’t know it at the time, but this fluorescent pit is where he’ll spend the next six years of his life with five other people selected along bipartisan lines. Operating without agenda, and answering only to the chairs of the Senate Intelligence Committee — Annette Bening offers a splendid, lip-driven impression of Senator Dianne Feinstein, delivering a nuanced and conflicted performance with nothing but a perfect wig and a few well-timed pouts — he and his team get to work.
This is the moment when you might fear that you’re about to watch Adam Driver perform clandestine Google searches on secret government servers for the next two hours, but that would be a (slight) mischaracterization of what follows. Burns might be determined to counterbalance the impatience, imagination, and inane glibness of other Hollywood stories about the Bush years (“Zero Dark Thirty” and “24” are explicitly dunked upon, while “Vice” comes out looking even worse for wear), but he’s also determined to make America’s multiplex audiences give a shit about what happened, and understand why it can’t be allowed to happen again. “The Report” lacks the obsessive color and paranoid depth of a film like “Zodiac,” but it’s similar in its ability to synthesize an unfathomable amount of data into a compelling narrative with conspiratorial bite. Burns’ scripts for Steven Soderbergh projects like “Contagion” and “Side Effects” revealed a gift for threading rich human drama through deadly bureaucratic loopholes; he puts that talent to good use here, streamlining 6.5 million pages of detail into an process-driven story that gradually finds a real moral center.
First, however, he has to depict what happens to a country when it takes leave of its conscience, and that means viewers will have to brace themselves for some harrowing, yellow-toned flashbacks of “enhanced interrogation.” Deep in the bowels of secret government black sites, CIA-sponsored psychologists try to reverse engineer anti-interrogation techniques against suspected terrorists, and remain convinced that torture is the only way to elicit the information they want. An Arabic-speaking American operative tries to convince them that it’d be more effective (and humane) to build a rapport with these prisoners — that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar — but no one wants to hear that.
America has just been attacked because its various defense agencies didn’t see the threat in time, and the CIA is angry. They want prevention. They want revenge. They want to hurt these captives. And, to that end, they succeed. They waterboard one man 183 times without any results, which inspires Senator Feinstein to ask an important question: “If it works, why did they need to do it 183 times?” The unstated answer is that it felt good. It also turned every one of their prisoners into a powerful recruitment tool, and inflamed jihadist fervor across the world. And your tax dollars paid for it.
While the first half of “The Report” inevitably holds Republicans accountable for many of these crimes against humanity, but “The Report” really kicks into gear once Daniel starts trying to get it published under a Democratic president who’s more interested in appeasing the right than he is in making things right. It’s an understandable position for America’s first black Commander-in-Chief, especially considering that he was forced to inherit a recession, but that doesn’t mean it can afford to go unexamined.
If anything, Burns has too much fun parsing through all the moral positions that collide when Daniel works to make his findings public and a handful of uncharacteristically hammy scenes devolve into subpar Aaron Sorkin speechifying as Burns strains to make sure his audience appreciates what’s at stake. The quiet, effective resolve of the movie’s final moments help cement its purpose, but — for such a talky, data-driven film — it’s a small visual moment that proves most resonant. It happens early on, in the background of a seemingly innocuous shot of Daniel walking through the streets of New York City. In the skyline behind him, One World Trade Center is in the process of being rebuilt. The first 70 floors or so are finished, but everything above that remains a skeleton of silver metal. In this context, the question posed by that image is as urgent as it is unshakably powerful: As we rebuild from one of the worst tragedies in America’s history, and confront a most regrettable chance to reevaluate our place in this world, what kind of people do we want to be? The answer isn’t any clearer now than it was then, but that’s all the more reason to keep asking each other.
“The Report” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.