It’s a credit to frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns (writer of Contagion, Side Effects and the recent The Laundromat) that his directorial debut and docudrama The Report is so gripping, despite essentially focusing on a person trawling through e-mails.
This man is Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver). In 2009, a couple of years after the CIA destroyed 100 video recordings of post-9/11 interrogations of terrorist suspects, he is sent to investigate the agency by his boss Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening). Navigating bureaucracy and politics, Jones scrolls – alongside two others – through millions of CIA e-mails over six years. Eventually, he begins to piece together a narrative regarding War on Terror practices. His findings are so disturbing – and worthy of a 6700-page Bible-sized report – the White House (fronted by Jon Hamm’s Chief of Staff) don’t want to release them.
Journalistic in approach – even more so than similar in tone docudramas Spotlight, The Post and the recent By the Grace of God – what’s thrilling about The Report is it manages to strip almost all Hollywood artifice out of its dramatisation. There are no shadowy hitmen, no scenes where our overwhelmed hero goes to a bar to unwind and ends up in a fist fight, no extraneous sub-plots about Jones’ love-life. In fact, the closest we get to the latter is when the character mentions in passing that he was dating someone when his investigation started but had to break-up with her because his work was too time consuming.
Burns doesn’t need any of these sometimes welcome if tired narrative devices. The true-life story is so inherently riveting. Each revelation cutting back in time to the CIA pre-Obama’s administration and their actions, Jones pieces together through correspondence the full facts of the agency’s torturing of detainees in secret prisons off US soil or ‘black sites.’
Details gathered include that more people were subjected to ‘enhanced interrogation’ than disclosed, some forms of torture were used without Department of Justice approval, one prisoner died from hypothermia due to the conditions he was left in, and perhaps most importantly, this use of excessive force was not effective in gaining new information. Detainees either fed their captors facts they already knew or fake details just to make the pain stop.
The latter is particularly relevant considering certain sectors felt torture was justified because they were informed falsely it led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Maybe the most tragic scene in The Report comes after Jones is informed his research may not be released – Obama’s administration more interested in just cleaning Bush and Cheney’s mess than holding anyone accountable for it. The Senate staffer seethes watching the trailer for Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 epic Zero Dark Thirty, a movie which though perhaps not pro-torture did help perpetuate the lies Jones is fighting to expose.
While The Report’s approach to its story could be dry and dense, it ultimately works thanks to its craft behind the camera and on screen. Burns’ script is as snappy as Aaron Sorkin, while only briefly in its final act displaying any of The Newsroom writer’s out-dated idealised patriotism. Behind the camera, the debut director shows considerable flair too, managing to juggle multiple timelines and narrative threads with ease. He also deploys an effectively sickly yellow filter on flashback scenes, making the scenes of torture all the more horrible.
In terms of performances, it’s a testament to Driver’s skill as an actor that he manages to sell Jones’ transition from cheerful rookie to embittered investigator, even when the script itself isn’t drawing attention to this disintegration. He’s also backed by an incredible cast. While Bening will no doubt earn plaudits for her quiet yet effortlessly commanding portrayal of Feinstein, Maura Tierney as a CIA agent overseeing the torture also deserves a ton of praise.
It’s through Tierney’s angry, dogged yet misguided eyes we understand why the US would be so desperate as to listen to and take advice from Mitchell Jensen and Associates (represented here by Douglas Hodge playing the film’s most villainous character), the company who developed the US’ torture methods and were essentially given free reign to do as they pleased. It was because the CIA were embarrassed and furious after 9/11 and let their emotions dictate over reason.
Just in terms of the sheer information it covers and delivers effectively – Jones’ increasing indignation helps to mask reems of exposition behind desperate pleas for decency – The Report is the defining movie about the War on Terror. Hell, even the passing moment in Burns’ film of a detainee being sleep deprived by having Marilyn Manson blasted in his ears will make you angrier than any scene in last year’s cack-handed flippant Dick Cheney biopic Vice.
The best to be said about The Report is that it emphasises fact over fiction, common sense over chaos and progress over regression. It’s a quality that should make the real Daniel J. Jones proud.