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Always a pleasure to watch, Adam Driver’s engaging performance livens up what is otherwise a very conventional docudrama. Following in the footsteps of films like All The President’s Men, The Report covers the U.S. government investigation into the CIA’s use of torture on suspected terrorists. Driver plays Daniel Jones, a young senate staffer who becomes obsessed with unearthing the truth.
DIRECTOR: Scott Z. Burns
STREAMING: Amazon Prime
‘The Report’ is a straightforward and conventional political drama that’s ultimately more educational than exciting to watch.
Conveniently for a Hollywood narrative, The Report’s hero and villains emerged from the same origin story. After 9/11, Jones switched college majors and dedicated himself to public service, eventually working for the FBI and then the Senate Intelligence Committee. Meanwhile, former Air Force psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell had a very different response to the tragedy. They launched the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program for al-Qaeda suspects, receiving $80 million in government contracts. Their methods included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, humiliation, and keeping detainees in stress positions.
Starting out as a young Senate staffer under Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), Jones is given the daunting task of leading the investigation into CIA interrogation methods. Locked in a windowless room full of CIA files, Jones uncovers horrifying human rights abuses committed in the name of American freedom—along with proof that the CIA knew that torture doesn’t actually work. But despite overwhelming evidence, it’s damn near impossible to get his 6,700-page report published. Republicans stonewall the investigation and the CIA actively tries to sabotage it, but even Feinstein and Obama are unwilling to let the report come to light. After all, this kind of scandal would spoil the Obama administration’s bipartisan image by being too critical of the Bush years.
Writer/director Scott Z. Burns has written screenplays about similar material before: The Bourne Ultimatum (one of Hollywood’s more cynical spy franchises) and The Informant!, Steven Soderbergh’s biographical whistleblower movie. Burns put a great deal of research into The Report, with Daniel Jones having direct input as a consultant. It pays off. The Report is thoroughly educational and much more likely to find an audience than a dry documentary about a dense government report from 2014. It is, however, not especially thrilling or memorable as a drama. Although Adam Driver is as naturalistic and compelling as ever, he’s playing an everyman figure at the center of a cast of stock characters, and most scenes are overly reliant on exposition. Fortunately, Annette Bening has a relaxed attitude to playing Feinstein, not leaning too hard on showy mannerisms or prosthetics—which, let’s face it, often make things worse when depicting real-life figures.
Watching this in 2019, it feels like a story from another era. We know the Torture Report will come out by the end of the movie, and that Daniel Jones finds some way through the grueling mess of red tape and CIA interference. We also know that the post-9/11 wars and their accompanying intelligence efforts are still underway in real life, even if the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program was shut down. Overall, it’s grim to think about how deadlocked and self-sabotaging the system was before the Trump administration came to power, never mind now. Rather than being a dark-but-uplifting story about the truth coming to light, you can’t help but wonder if a similar investigation has any hope of succeeding today.
As a real-life political drama, The Report relies on familiar old tropes. Meetings in shadowy parking lots, arguments over files, and the occasional jogging sequence around D.C. to stop the audience from getting sick of indoor scenes. It does the job but it’s not offering anything new, even with actors like Jon Hamm and Michael C. Hall fleshing out characters in the supporting cast. So if you’re especially into political dramas, or want to learn more about the CIA torture investigation, The Report is worth checking out. But otherwise, it’s hardly essential viewing.
The Report is currently screening at the London Film Festival. It comes out in theaters on Nov. 15, and on Amazon Prime on Nov. 29.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor