The statute of limitations on fictional adaptations of atrocities and conspiracies varies from person to person. While there are those who’d flock to see a film about something as recent as the 2016 US election or Channel 4’s Brexit: The Uncivil War before the dust even settles, others will undoubtedly struggle with the tone of the current crop of films dealing with the Iraq war. Homeland is one thing, but this is quite another.
The Report is one such film, though its setting is not on the battlefield but rather the basement of the Senate. This is where staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) is tasked by his boss (Annette Bening as Senator Dianne Feinstein) with investigating the government’s treatment of detainees in the days following 9/11, and the real details of the CIA’s now-abandoned “enhanced interrogation” techniques.
As he begins to uncover the scandalous truth, he is pressured in various ways under both the Bush and Obama governments to bury his findings. It’s a testament to Jones and those he worked with that this didn’t happen, and you can go read a copy of the final report here.
The film most recalls something like Spotlight in its approach, with professionals peeling back the layers of corruption one by one, calm as you like, before things come to a head and emotions are understandably unleashed.
But we’re used to these sorts of movies being set further back in time, focusing on oversights and corruption that we can safely perceive as over and dealt with. The Report is different if only in that it deals with people still in government, wars still being fought and moral failings that have only seemed to get worse at least in the eyes of the public.
That’s what makes this such a difficult film to watch at times, but also a rewarding one. It’s almost clinical in its delivery of the cold hard facts, reading as Jones’ report come to life – every utterance fact-checked, every libel law seemingly adhered to and every scene acting in service of the issue at hand. Nothing more, nothing less.
We never visit Jones at home or spend time digging into his psyche. Writer and director Scott Z Burns cares only about how his protagonist feels about his work, which, as far as we can tell, is all he really had going on during this period anyway.
Jones’ earlier life is referenced and visited in the most efficient way possible, though the film’s first half-hour or so actually suffers from its frantic and rather perfunctory journey through time. We’re told in the opening scene in which Jones meets with Denis McDonough (John Hamm) that he switched all of his classes at Harvard to National Security the day after 11 September 2001 and that his commitment to the job has led to the failure of personal relationships, but everything else is left a mystery.
This has been widely touted as Adam Driver’s year at the Oscars, which is proof of the impression he’s made within only a few years. Though the subject matter and timing of The Report is likely something the Academy has its eye on, its starring performance isn’t typical fodder. That’s not a knock – Driver is showy and emotional only when the material calls for it, while never losing sight of the frustration and mundanity of Jones’ task.
The Report is filled with meetings, facts and hearings. Flashbacks to the acts in question are brief and as tasteful as possible given the subject matter – an almost impossible line to tow and one that other media has leapt over with reckless abandon.
Lip service is paid to related pop culture touchstones such as 24 and Zero Dark Thirty, the former of which is widely considered to blame for popularising the idea that torture works, and that it’s just fine for desperate Americans to do whatever they like as long as it ensures the safety of its country.
As the titular document proves, however, it’s an idea built on falsehoods and spread by ignorance. This film has the power to publicise Jones’ work far beyond its initial reach, but it’s also an entertaining ride through admittedly tricky fare, making procedure and red tape as engaging as it’s possible to be. Driver’s performance and the quiet power of the material alone make this a must-see.
The Report is showing at the London Film Festival and hits UK cinemas on 15 December.