The very title of ‘The Report’ lays out the movie’s most daunting challenge: How do you engage, never mind excite, an audience with sheaves of classified documents, vaultlike work spaces and reams of expository dialogue — chunks of it delivered by impassive men in identical grey suits? Well, you could start by giving Adam Driver the starring role, hiring Jon Hamm to lope in and out of otherwise stagnant scenes, and threading shocking flashbacks through the more arid patches.
Writer-director Scott Z Burns does all of those things. Yet his smart, layered screenplay — depicting the US Senate’s yearslong investigation into the CIA’s endorsement of torture in the aftermath of September 11 — adamantly resists lift-off. Saturated with details and counterterrorism jargon, crammed full of real-world characters some would prefer to forget (looking at you, John Yoo), this swampy expose is so tangled in red tape and competing political agendas that it can barely breathe.
Striding through the fog of obfuscation is Daniel J Jones (Driver), a staffer charged by Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) with investigating the CIA’s euphemistically named enhanced interrogation techniques. As Jones and his small team learn about these methods, and the psychologists — the movie’s de facto villains — who designed them, stomach-churning flashbacks of abused Al Qaida detainees hammer home their brutality and the myth of their effectiveness.
These backward leaps act like cattle prods, jarring us out of the somnolence that densely talkative films can induce. We need them: However crucial and opportune in its truth-seeking and depictions of political trickery (Burns could hardly have known his film would plop into theatres alongside the impeachment hearings for President Donald Trump), ‘The Report’ is too often dramatically frozen, its emotions stubbornly internal. Given the near-impossible task of gluing our eyes to blank rooms and cautious conversations, cinematographer Eigil Bryld mostly zooms in close and crosses his fingers.
So starved are we for sensation that when a summary of Jones’ findings is finally exposed to the light of an official hearing, the triumphal surge nearly caused me to yelp with relief. Aside from the occasional spicy performance (like Hamm’s smooth turn as Denis McDonough, Barack Obama’s chief of staff, and Ted Levine’s slyly damning portrayal of former CIA Director John Brennan), it’s Driver who must bear the film’s considerable weight. He does so by giving Jones a mounting fury that manifests not in explosive confrontations, but in a gradually hardening resolve to protect and disseminate his findings. With Driver, there’s always a sense of something leashed, and his characters can seem to be operating on a plane above and beyond everyone else. These qualities align perfectly with Jones’ increasingly isolated and dangerous journey, yet the man beneath the mission remains frustratingly unknowable.
In his vibrant screenplays for Steven Soderbergh (like ‘Contagion’ in 2011 and this year’s ‘The Laundromat’), Burns has shown he’s more than capable of zapping complicated stories to life. And where ‘The Report’ succeeds, it’s in pointing constantly and anxiously to the importance of holding government to account. Burns has clearly thought long and hard about how to open our eyes, but maybe not enough about how to keep them that way.
‘The Report’ is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Watch the trailer below: