Review: The Report

11 November 2019

Scott Z. Burns’ rigorous dramatisation of the real-life investigation into the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11 is as meticulous and uncompromising as its subject. What does it mean today to make a film so rigidly devoted to the truth?

Multiple times during the 2-hour runtime of The Report, I found myself watching Adam Driver’s Daniel J. Jones report to the office of his superior with a disturbing and incriminatory revelation, and elicit nothing but inscrutable silence. Each time, his boss – still-serving Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, played here by a masterful Annette Bening – appears to ruminate momentarily before leaving the room, giving nothing away. Each time, Jones looks up at her assistant (‘what just happened?’), who offers nor more clarity than Feinstein did. And each time, it feels like we’re thumping our head into a particularly dense and resistant brick wall.

The Report is not an exhilarating movie. Its pace is deliberate, and the investigation it tracks has little sense of mystery or intrigue. The meat of this film, indeed its main theme, is to be found in how it chips away at bureaucratic obscurity – the high esteem in which it holds truth, regardless of the obstacles that prevent us from accessing it. There’s nothing glamourous or sexy about it: the titular report is a 6,700 page beast of a document, which, in one particularly compelling visual, is manifested as a stack of A4 pages that rises above Adam Driver’s head.

The film follows Driver’s patient, determined Jones as he is handpicked by Feinstein to form a Senate Committee to investigate the use of what became known as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in the hunt for the perpetrators of 9/11. The narrative tracks the 5-year development of the investigation and the equally drawn-out push to publicise its findings, often flashing back (in rather on-the-nose handheld, sepia-toned cinematography) to the various CIA offices and covert subterranean holding cells where the techniques were respectively cooked up and implemented. 

The two central CIA guys shown here are just blithely, almost amusingly loathsome; and the depictions of their brutal techniques may be hard to stomach. This is part and parcel with the film’s unrelenting approach, as we’re shown the investigation in drawn-out, scrupulous detail. To wit, The Report is thorough to an extent that becomes kind of metatextual: its craft reflects the painstaking, often-difficult process Daniel J. Jones went through to create and publicise this incredibly important document. Where a lesser film would opt for grandiose, emotional sermonising on moral responsibility, The Report is cool-headed and by-the-book. Last month Human Rights First presented the film with the 2019 Sidney Lumet Award for Integrity in Entertainment, and Driver has spoken in interviews of how writer-director Scott Z. Burns was incredibly careful to depict only facts and events that are undisputed: the entire movie is effectively fact-check proof. 

With this in mind, it’s pretty damning. The film comes out predictably tough on the Bush administration that oversaw the implementation of Enhanced Interrogation, but it’s in the years of Obama’s presidency, when Jones starts to push for the publicisation of the report, that its criticism becomes more nuanced – and more fascinating. Driver is in reliably excellent form here, portraying an incredibly dedicated man who faces constant frustration of his effort, as Jones is repeatedly denied the ability to make his work public. The White House, Burns shows us, was reluctant to come out guns blazing with an uncomfortable critique of American defence operations – it faced an inherited recession, a Congress that quickly became hostile, and a permanent target on the back of its president.

But the film, despite its considerable patience for investigative rigour, has little to spare for political considerations. Hard truths are necessary truths. The Report presents an almost total failure of American Due Process to prevent, punish, and even just expose the misuse of power by the most formidable and dominant military force in human history. In the recovery from this dark moment, it asks ‘what do we want to be?’ (literally, unfortunately: these words appear in voiceover as we see Jon Hamm stare contemplatively out of a window). A summarised, declassified version of Jones’ report is available to the public to read – this film, however, will undoubtedly be the more public account of his investigation. It’s slow, and at times less than artful – ultimately, though, it’s worthy of the responsibility.

‘The Report’ opens in Australian cinemas from November 14th.

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