*** out of ****
(for some scenes of inhumane treatment and torture, and strong language)
Released: November 15, 2019 in theaters; November 29 on Amazon Prime
Runtime: 119 minutes
Directed by: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Adam Driver, Anette Bening, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Morrison, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll, Ted Levine, Tim Blake Nelson, Maura Tierney, Joanne Tucker, Linda Powell, Sarah Goldberg, Alexander Chaplin, Ian Blackman, Matthew Rhys
Every movie has a point of view, especially political ones, and never more so than when based on a true story of scandal. The Report is no exception and yet, even with its biases, writer / director Scott Z. Burns goes where the truth leads him.
That’s especially true when you realize how this left-leaning biopic substantiates (albeit unintentionally, no doubt) Donald Trump’s assessment of The Swamp. This could easily be titled Deep State: The Movie.
The Report is an expose of the D.C. establishment cesspool, going beyond indicting the Bush Administration’s interrogation policy of terrorists during the initial post-9/11 years to also implicating Obama’s politically-driven cover-ups of the same, and how both elected parties subverted the law. The real kicker comes down the stretch when it takes aim at one of Trump’s harshest, most respected critics and completely throws him under the bus.
Detailing a years-long investigation, The Report tells the account of Senate aide Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) and how he uncovered the use of torture techniques by U.S. agents against captured jihadists. This practice peaked during the height of the War on Terror, led by two callous psychologists whose mind games led to sadistically sociopathic extremes.
Jones was a man with long-term goals of working in the intelligence community, yet when tasked by his boss Senator Dianne Feinstein (Anette Bening) to look into the rumors of interrogations crossing ethical lines, Jones ended up going after the very institutions he admired.
There’s a lot of exposition to plow through, but Burns (a go-to screenwriter for Steven Soderbergh) does it deftly, making the complex accessible. (Burns also effectively appropriates Soderbergh’s signature aesthetic for drama. i.e. handheld and colorful-but-cold.) His ensemble mostly serves the dense script well, helping make expository information-dumps play like real-time debates and breakthroughs. But, more than anything, this is a bravura showcase for Adam Driver.
Burns’s script essentially builds a case, but Driver never comes off as a surrogate prosecutor who’s been tasked to present it. With rare naturalism, Driver imbues every moment with spontaneity and a true sense of discovery. (In key supporting roles, Michael C. Hall and Maura Tierney virtually match him.)
Achieving that is much harder than Driver makes it look, giving his recitations a credible, impassioned conviction that never broaches the kind of soapbox grandstanding which actors often find seductive and fall prey to.
With Driver serving as the dogged, indefatigable crusader who confronts corruption with idealism, the whole cloak-and-dagger process (dramatically heightened though it may be) is riveting in its own right, but it’s also something that becomes oddly – even bizarrely – relevant.
This movie hits screens (then Amazon Prime) at a time when President Trump is polarizing the country. As his detractors claim, he is destroying the very fabric of our republic by upending norms and undermining our institutions. Now here comes The Report to show us just how corrupt and pervasive the norms in those institutions often are.
It flat out takes the intel community to the woodshed, shining a light on the untouchable world of covert license that the Intelligentsia often enjoys, a cabal that ranges from actual CIA operatives and the hierarchy that sanctions and protects them to the political elites of both parties that look the other way.
It’s such a contrast to how the same institutions are currently defended (even venerated) by the media on a daily basis. It’s in that media climate that The Report proves to be a provocative media outlier, undercutting the very departments, branches, and leaders the daily news cycle assures that we can and should trust, and reminding us that we should be wary of willful naïveté that serves a political bias.
The Report pulls no punches. It starts where you’d expect – a.k.a. propping up Dick Cheney as the primary boogeyman culprit – but it doesn’t stop there. As the investigation drags on due to multi-bureaucratic resistance, eventually crossing into the Obama administration, Jones keeps running into the same walls and obfuscation.
Writer/Director Burns doesn’t pander by spinning the blame solely on Bush/Cheney holdovers; in fact, he directly targets former CIA director and Obama appointee John Brennan (played by The Silence of the Lambs’ serial killer Buffalo Bill himself, Ted Levine). Brennan, a man now positioned during the Trump era as a serious, respected insider with unimpeachable integrity (and a favorite go-to expert by anti-Trump cable news coverage) comes off here as anything but.
Regardless of where you stand on Trump now, The Report reinforces the need for healthy doses of cautious cynicism, even as we fight to protect and strengthen our institutions. Indeed, Daniel J. Jones’ own non-partisan virtue shows us that the two things must go hand-in-hand.
Keeping it real: people don’t read government reports, not even vital ones rigorously compiled by patriots like Jones. That’s why movies are made about them. In order to get their revelations onto people’s radars, packaging them in effective genre thrillers seems to be the best way. In the hands of filmmakers like Scott Z. Burns, at least, it most definitely is.