(NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. The Report opens November 15th. Check out our interview with Daniel Jones here!)
There’s a great scene in Scott Z. Burns’ The Report when a TV news item airs proclaiming to tell the full story about the capture of Osama Bin Laden and the use of enhanced interrogation in that operation. Then you find out it’s basically an ad for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which, as good as it might have been as a dramatic piece, was hardly full and hardly true. With meticulous pacing, loads of facts, figures, and witnesses, The Report is Burns’ coldly calculated, analytical answer to Bigelow’s film.
There are ways Burns could’ve made a tense political thriller out of the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture following the events of 9/11, but by choosing to follow the facts and leave emotion behind, he has made an important movie about one of this country’s greatest embarrassments. The name Daniel Jones isn’t likely to ring a lot of alarm bells, but he’s quietly one of the most important figures in our country’s history. Although like many well-known historical figures, some see him as a hero, and others as a traitor. Daniel was the guy hand-picked to lead the Senate’s largest investigation ever, into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program, which is basically their nice way of saying “torture”. Daniel is an all-around do-gooder with the track record to prove it: former FBI agent, Harvard grad, and a stint teaching kids in the Teach for America program. Learning how to wrangle kids is a necessary skill up on The Hill, Daniel is told by future Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm), just before it’s suggested he go and get more Intelligence experience before applying to work in the Senate.
The Report moves entirely on the momentum of Driver’s performance, capturing Daniel’s dogged drive and incorruptible morality. Burns isn’t pussy-footing around here; he knows this is important stuff that far too many people in this country don’t know about. So, like Daniel does, Burns puts his head down and does the work. Daniel is locked away in a confidential government office with a few desks, no windows, and not even a printer (paper tends to get people in trouble), and barely a lead to go on. What Daniel knows is that the CIA has been making interrogation footage disappear, and he needs to find out why. While he’s at it, keeping his emotions or any appearance of partisanship out of the report is key.
Of course, politics can’t simply be ignored, either. Daniel’s team is formed on bipartisan lines but the Republicans are playing hardball, and so too is the Agency which stonewalls him at every turn. On Daniel’s side is Dianne Feinstein, with Annette Bening capturing the Senator’s ferocity and independent spirit, the latter causing a few unexpected curveballs. But mostly this is a crime procedural on a national scale, with much of the film spent behind Daniel’s desk as he digs through reams of data looking for clues. However, if you think it’s boring that’s where you’d be wrong. Burns is able to take years of information and boil it down in an entertaining, thrilling package that’s easy to understand. We all can see the edges of a conspiracy in everything Daniel is looking into, and it stretches far beyond the actions of the Bush administration and into Obama’s, so nobody comes out of this looking very good.
To that end, it’s impossible not to place The Report in current context. The reason why torture is able to happen in this country is when powerful people become ruled by their own fear. There’s a scene that’s basically ripped straight out of Adam McKay’s Vice, and if you hated Dick Cheney after that movie you’ll loathe him after seeing the full extent of his clandestine activities. Flashbacks take us into the brutal tortures committed at black sites around the world. Although an Arabic FBI agent has shown that building a rapport with a suspected terrorist is an effective method of gaining intel, shady government contractors take advantage of the country’s collective fear after 9/11 to implement a more brutal technique. In one scene, the two contractors, who look like a couple of used car salesmen, list the many “proven” techniques at their disposal and they sound absolutely medieval : waterboarding, sleep deprivation, mock burials, and the squirm-inducing rectal rehydration. Burns is showing what happens when America loses its way, as a means of something like that hopefully never happening again. His goals aren’t dissimilar to McKay’s Vice, but rather than shaming us for allowing these things to happen, Burns wants to open our eyes to what was done in the name of keeping us safe, so that we never take our values for granted again.
While riveting throughout, The Report gets even better as Daniel fights to get his report published as the political winds keep shifting. Things don’t get better for him under the Obama administration, and he soon becomes a target himself so as to discredit the entirety of the report. As the Republicans regain power, Daniel must push the legal limits to see his work recognized, or see the years he spent on it all go to waste. If you don’t know the full story there’s a legitimate question of how things will end up, and if you do know it’s still eye-opening how bipartisan political expedience can be.