So for those of you who checked out my review of the Gavin Hood espionage drama, 'Official Secrets,' you may remember that I brought up a film called 'The Report' at the end of the article. Specifically, I was curious to know which of the Sundance political intrigue dramas would be able to tackle their subject matter more efficiently, and whether the two films would have distinctive enough takes on their source material to stand out.
Admittedly, this was a bit of a mistake trying to judge the two together, but if nothing else, it allowed me to keep 'The Report' in the back of my mind in the midst of a seemingly never-ending stream of Awards Season films.
More than its source material prestige, I was also interested by the choice of Scott Z. Burn to tackle the story. Burns is best known for his work with Steven Soderbergh on films like 'Contagion,' 'The Informant,' and this year's 'The Laundromat,' as well as one of the writers for the upcoming James Bond film, 'No Time to Die.'
Even as someone who hasn't explored as much of Soderbergh's filmography as I really should (I could fill a whole list with those kinds of filmmakers), I was interested to see what Burns could do in one of his first feature-length films as a director, and taking on a story that, from all accounts, seemed to be gravitating towards the work's writers like Aaron Sorkin and Oliver Stone.
So what do we get with 'The Report?' Well it's a political drama like you may expect, filled up with loads of political jargon, guys in suits loaded with red-tape, and a message about searching for the truth even in the midst of human complexity and miscommunication. But what 'The Report' has going for is a masterfully crafted script, brought to life by a dedicated cast, and a sense of drive to its central narrative that knows exactly what beats it needs to hit to keep its momentum. It doesn't hit every goal it sets out for, but the results of this kind of ambition really impressed me.
In 2009, Senator Dianne Feinstein (played by Annette Benning) recruits Senate staff member Daniel Jones (played by Adam Driver) to lead an investigation into the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the CIA in the aftermath of 9/11. Jones and his team search through millions of documents over the next few years, finding misplaced details and terminology that seem to suggest that the CIA has misrepresented their methods that would otherwise be called torture.
Jones and his ever-dwindling team put together an almost 7,000 page report to present to the Senate, only for forces within the government to pressure the analyst and the senator not to publish their findings. There are also periodic flashbacks that reveal the setup of the program by C.I.A. director John Brennan (played by Ted Levine) and consultants Dr. James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen (played by Douglas Hodge and T. Ryder Smith respectively).
If you're the kind of moviegoer attracted to true-life stories brought together through scenes of people talking in rooms, do I have a movie for you! Scott Z. Burns' screenplay takes the years of research and bureaucratic discourse and condenses it down into quick, concise, and fascinating dialogue for our characters. The movie does feel overcrowded, as I'll bring up in a minute, but the script and the film's editor, Greg O'Bryant's, unsung work do wonders in giving so much material the sense of urgency to keep an audience involved.
The other side of the screenplay is that it doesn't try to play to any one side. If for whatever reason political dramas based on true events drive you away because of a supposed bias, 'The Report' isn't free of bias, but it does do a surprising job in attempting to fairly depict the facts, with just as many jabs at one presidential administration as another given the time frame. I wondered as the film went on "how could the American people possibly let this happen so recently?" Yet as the movie goes on, you realize where a lot of that deep-seeded fear is coming from, and Scott Z. Burns is bringing us on a pretty thorough examination on where those fears can take us.
In many ways, the comparisons you might have heard to films like 'All the Presidents Men' and 'Spotlight' aren't too far off, and a lot of that comparison has to do with the films central characters in relation to the story Adam Driver has always been a bit of an acting chameleon, and he plays Daniel Jones with a very silent sense of moral drive that is fantastically utilized.
I also don't think Annette Benning is getting enough credit for this movie. She very much acts as Driver's woman-on-the-inside (though she is explicitly the leader of the committee on the report) and she always acts as a nice contrast to Driver's in-depth explanations. Word apparently spread quickly about this movie, and thus we have a pretty stacked supporting cast, and you can't go more than a few minutes without a new piece of the puzzle personifying themselves.
Structurally, 'The Report' relies not just on its main storyline, but also on flashbacks (complete with new a color pallet) to reveal some of the darker origins of the EIT program. While I appreciate the direction of these scenes (the waterboarding scenes, in particular, are pretty brutal), they do often feel like sharp turns to the journey the film is going for. That may be solely because I was so thoroughly invested in Daniel's journey, but I did feel as though those scenes could have been paced out better so as not to feel jarring.
There's also that idea I keep bringing it back to which is that this film feels like a long read. It's a lot of interpersonal dialogue about national security and political discourse, stitched together with a lot of people looking at monitors and paper stacks. While I was thoroughly invested in that end goal of the story, I can see a lot of people walking away from this thinking it's rather boring.
Compared to the aforementioned 'Official Secrets,' I did think of an interesting question: do films with stories as important as these deserve protagonists that fight for themselves or for their ideas? Admittedly, Daniel's moral code is similar to Keira Knightley's Katherine Gun, but Daniel is in a film that rarely treats him as his own man.
He's always told to discard emotional attachment and, because of that, his character feels just as much a cog in this story as any of the others. That's not a bash on the film, but it's something to keep in mind if you're looking for an empathetic lead for a story revolving around the morality of wartime torture.
At the end of the day, 'The Report' satisfied a lot of what I hoped it would. Its length shows pretty explicitly and it doesn't do the greatest of jobs with fully realizing its characters, but for what we're given, I thought it was the real deal. Another picture of a time period I, and many others, couldn't see the full picture of until years afterwards, and realizing that picture through consistent dialogue and a cast that brings a true sense of commitment to the material.
It won't be for everyone, and I don't know how much it'll be in the public eye as we spiral further into awards season, but if you're at all into strongly written political thrillers and don't mind going a bit broad with the structure, I can say this is one to check out.
Overall, I give "The Report" 8/10
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