[This is a repost of my review from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.The Report opens today in limited release and arrives on Amazon Prime on November 29th.]
It’s easy to glance at The Report and think you know the story. You know that during the Bush administration, the CIA tortured detainees, but knowledge and understanding aren’t the same thing. People knew Richard Nixon was a crook when All the President’s Men came out, and they knew the Catholic Church had covered up the sexual assault of children when Spotlight came out. With The Report, writer-director Scott Z. Burns is playing at the Oscar-worthy level of those films as he does a deep dive into the investigation to unearth the truth behind the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”. Even if you think you know the story, you’ve probably only scratched the surface. Without ever lapsing into cheap tricks or tired clichés, Burns paints an engrossing picture of how the CIA pursued torture and the fight to make the report public. With an amazing cast led by an unforgettable performance from Adam Driver, The Report strikes at the heart of why it’s vital for the U.S. to acknowledge and learn from its mistakes.
After a brief prologue introducing us to investigator Daniel Jones (Driver), the film primarily covers the years between 2009 and 2014 when Senate Intelligence committee head Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) tasked Jones with putting together a report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program. While details of the program had leaked out somewhat in the press, there wasn’t a full accounting of what the CIA knew, why they chose to engage in torture, and how they covered it up. As Jones and his team dig into the details of what happened, they’re constantly confronted with new obstacles as political power shifts, new figures aim to push their agenda, and everyone but Jones seems conflicted about whether or not the report should be made public.
The Report is an unapologetically dense movie. Like any good journalism drama, it throws a lot of information at the audience and demands your full attention as you keep up with a litany of facts, names, and events. Burns doesn’t aim to overwhelm his audience, but he doesn’t try to hold their hands either. By skillfully employing flashbacks that coincide with Jones’ discoveries, we feel like we’re learning the information along with him. It’s an expert use of showing, not telling, so that even when Jones is reciting information from his report, we feel like we know the players he’s talking about. When he mentions someone like Gina Haspel (Maura Tierney), we recognize the name, not just because she’s the current head of the CIA, but because we know her from the scenes where she’s condoning torture because she’s so desperate to prevent another 9/11 even though the psychologists at the heart of the torture program are clearly quacks and con men.
I never felt like I was lost during The Report because I was always on the edge of my seat, eager to learn the next revelation and to see Jones fight back against anyone who would like to see the truth covered up. The film takes no prisoners, and while the CIA is cast as the villain, no one really gets away clean here. The Obama Administration serves as the antagonists at various points as we learn why they were reluctant to spend their political capital investigating the previous administration despite their obvious guilt. Burns doesn’t include these notes as a “gotcha” moment or as some ploy for bipartisanship. The purpose of The Report is accountability and why it matters.
The importance of that accountability pulses through every action we see from Jones. Through Driver’s astounding performance, we see Jones as a driven investigator who can’t help but become passionate about his report, not just because it has consumed his entire life, but because of the nightmares it has caused. Jones isn’t working for partisan ideals or some moment in his past that connects him to his findings. He’s the hard-charging guy who refuses to back down, and yet Driver pitches his performance perfectly. He doesn’t come in yelling with righteous fury from the beginning. You see how the more Jones becomes invested, the more intense Driver’s performance becomes, and it’s amazing to see him play off a ridiculous bench of talented actors that includes not just Bening but also Jon Hamm, Matthew Rhys, Corey Stoll, and more.
It’s very easy for major events to vanish down the memory hole these days. It’s hard to remember the major news stories from five weeks ago let alone five years ago, but that’s why movies like The Report are so essential when they’re done as well as this. Burns doesn’t need to rely on cheap moments like a fictional girlfriend who chides Jones for not being home more often or a shadowy figure who stands outside Jones’ apartment at night. Burns has the facts on his side and a story that desperately needs to be told and retold so that it doesn’t happen again, especially as we have a cruel President who thinks torture is good because people applaud it at rallies. The U.S. tortured people. It was morally repulsive, tactically inefficient, and strategically detrimental to national security. The Report provides a powerful picture of why we can never forget that.