The American government’s use of torture in the wake of 9/11 might be one of the most repulsive stories of the 21st century. This is not only due to the severe, unthinkable violence inherent to the subject matter, but also to the confusion and misdirection at the heart of nearly every retelling. Rumors and accusations surrounding these events have been met with everything from denial to striking attempts at defending and justifying what its most fervent supporters have craftily termed not torture but ‘enhanced interrogation.’ For long it has been just as hard to find the truth as it is to swallow it.
In late 2014, as far as the general public knows, the story was set straight, and once and for all, it was officially confirmed that the CIA conducted out-and-out torture upon suspected associates of Al-Qaeda, many of whom were found innocent of any wrongdoing. The story was not necessarily news to those who had been following along since allegations of such behavior cropped up over ten years earlier, but nevertheless, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program was a breakthrough in many regards. In his new film The Report, writer/director Scott Z. Burns makes sure each and every viewer understands this assertion without a shred of doubt: this report was not only revelatory in its discoveries but also a monumental achievement as a symbol of checks-and-balances oversight in action. The film makes this point with both brutal efficiency and effective brutality, and though one’s full attention (and a very strong stomach) are required to last through its two heavy hours, The Report is an outstanding piece of furiously engaged cinema.
Beyond its political cherry bomb of an approach — which we will revisit — The Report is most notable for its quietly brilliant lead performance. Adam Driver, surely one of the world’s most beloved young actors, and for good reason, is magnetic as Daniel J. Jones, the man tasked with compiling the eponymous report, an assignment so gargantuan and complex that it recalls Sisyphus more than it does Woodward and Bernstein. The film principally follows Jones every step of the way down his more than half-decade-long mission; in each phase, Driver turns in exceptional choice after exceptional choice in his portrayal. Depending on the stage of the narrative, and the harrowing revelations Jones has exposed or been exposed to, Driver imbues his protagonist with pitch-perfect combinations of diligence, exasperation, fatigue, righteousness, disbelief, disillusion, and white-hot fury. This is a year already crowded with Best-Actor-tipped performances in various films, but I would not be at all surprised if Driver’s masterfully measured work sneaks onto a number of nomination lists.
That said, The Report is much more than simply a showcase for Driver’s considerable talent; this film boasts remarkably high quality in all other areas as well, on and off-screen. Just as magnetic is Annette Bening, playing Senator Dianne Feinstein, who set the compilation of the report into motion, and was largely responsible for its development and release, albeit occasionally conflicting with Jones over the most salient ways to do so. Bening delivers a fine-tuned and intriguing performance, balancing the Senator’s gravity and complexity very well. (One distraction of her performance, however, is the unshakeable impression that Bening would be excellent as Senator Elizabeth Warren, if/when the opportunity arises to portray her onscreen, but I digress…) Behind the scenes, Ethan Tobman’s production design, and Rich Devine’s set construction captivatingly recreate the austere yet commanding presence of various marbled corridors in shadowy government buildings. Their work combines seamlessly with Eigil Bryld’s cinematography and Susan Lyall’s notable costume design to give The Report an outstanding level of realism and specificity as it unfurls this complicated tale.
Elsewhere, many well-known and well-liked names populate the extensive cast of characters. Jon Hamm, Corey Stoll, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Matthew Rhys and more portray vital players in this sprawling story, giving the film the feel of a crusading epic through the darkest corners of modern American bureaucracy. Particularly outstanding are Ted Levine, as former CIA Director John Brennan, and Tim Blake Nelson (pulling double duty at the LFF with this and his also-impressive turn in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy) as quietly rebellious CIA operative Raymond Nathan. Though onscreen for only a few minutes, Nelson’s portrayal of a man growing more horrified by the day as he watches the CIA sadistically mistreat prisoners so effectively captures the overwhelmingly disturbing nature of it all that his distraught facial expressions stayed burned in my memory long after the credits rolled.
On that note, yes, Burns elects to re-stage a great deal of the truly sickening procedures to which the CIA’s contracted ‘interrogation experts’ subjected over one hundred human beings. These are, unsurprisingly, deeply disturbing scenes; necessary, though, as they unflinchingly remind the viewer exactly what Burns is asking us to hold the government accountable for. By interspersing Jones’ years-long documentarian efforts with dramatizations of the torture methods his report is compiling, Burns efficiently illuminates the horror of the true story while building sympathy for the unenviable task Jones has been assigned — we only have to watch the details unfold for a few minutes, Jones had to read about these unthinkable tragedies every day for years.
Once the report itself establishes what happened and moves onto who ought to be blamed, The Report becomes a different experience; in some ways less disturbing, in some ways, more so. Here, also, is where the film’s inconsistencies and the messier elements of its approach become apparent. Burns’ script spares no one, leveling condemnations at various political figures from the Bush-era to the Obama years, which at times comes off as a commendable objective, and at others, sloppy. Naturally, the lion’s share of ‘villainous’ portrayals is reserved for Bush-era Republicans and reckless, Islamophobic CIA operatives, who move from enthusiastically encouraging the use of torture in the 2000s to ferociously discouraging Jones and his team from exposing their involvement in the 2010s. Yet Burns also aims his ire at Obama-era operatives with a strikingly similar level of villainization, and though the film’s own facts show the Republicans’ actions more condemnable than anyone else’s, Burns lists alarmingly close to a ‘drain the swamp’ message which conspicuously muddies the film’s narrative. It seems as though Burns was more concerned with exposing the Democrats’ overly delicate reaction to the controversial events than examining the Republicans’ actions in setting these events in motion. This is a rather distracting inconsistency when considering the otherwise righteous, commendably hard-hitting narrative Burns has crafted; the issue is not that he points the finger at Democrats (who indeed acted insufficiently), but rather that Burns appears to prioritize this revelation without justification.
With this uncomfortable element in mind, it becomes clear by the end of the film that The Report is a project perfectly suited to the hard-truths-as-Hollywood-fare genre that has blossomed in recent years, even so far as to fall victim to this genre’s common problem: the concluding section. This is has proven difficult in many portrayals of high-stakes real-life events; Todd McCarthy’s Spotlight, Adam McKay’s The Big Short and Vice, and Steven Spielberg’s The Post, to name a few, also expose hugely important stories in journalistic, star-studded fashion, and also have trouble sticking the landing in a narratively sound fashion. Real-life stories, unsurprisingly, are hard to twist into a believable ‘end.’ Continuing this theme, Burns’ film suffers from its fumbled attempt to cover a few more complex political decisions while rushing to the finish line – and, notably, from the remarkable decision to conclude this film with a quote about treating captives with grace and respect… from George Washington.
Perhaps not all will find this particular choice risible. I, however, found it seriously disappointing that this film, which spends two hours touting the unacceptability of moral gray areas in matters of imprisonment, concludes with a George Washington quote. Washington, whose dentures were made out of teeth ripped from the mouths of slaves in his captivity, is not the first person I would imagine such a film would align itself with; this final choice struck me as ignorant at best, hypocritical at worst.
But many films with inconsistencies, even ones as lamentable as this final misstep, nevertheless deserve praise for the importance of their subject matter and the formal bombast with which they present it. Burns is not a flawless filmmaker, and this is not a flawless film, but it is a deeply important exercise in exhuming the demons of the recent past and forcing the nation to reckon with them. I hope many people see it, though not without questioning which of Burns’ assertions are objectively justifiable, and which require a further degree of critical thought.