Senate investigator Daniel Jones and film director Scott Z. Burns are both known for exposing dirty secrets. So it’s fitting that Jones, who revealed the CIA’s post-9/11 torture practices, is the subject of Burns’ political docudrama The Report.
Burns tackled agricultural-industry price fixing in The Informant! and climate change in An Inconvenient Truth. His roles on those movies were writer and producer, respectively, but this time he adds director to his resume for just the second time. And while the result often lacks a naturalistic ebb and flow (perhaps because of Burns’ relative inexperience at the helm of a feature), it succeeds thanks to a disturbingly powerful story and yet another wonderful lead performance by Adam Driver.
The film tells the true tale of Jones’ aforementioned investigation, which culminated in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Report of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program. If you think that’s a mouthful, just wait until you see the movie, which attempts to cram in as many of the report’s 6,700 pages and roughly 38,000 footnotes as it can. Burns, who also penned the screenplay, deserves credit for thoroughness, but the film – which features multiple time changes, myriad minor characters and editing that keeps its foot to the pedal for the duration – can be exhausting. There’s simply no room left to take a breath and savor the human moments that such a mammoth undertaking surely afforded Jones and his team. There’s just no time for Carl Bernstein to toss Bob Woodward a cookie.
But Burns packs his film with other types of treats: poisonous ones. You’ll be reminded how the CIA illegally imprisoned and tortured suspects, and then lied about it. You’ll be reacquainted with the fact that these brutal practices of “enhanced interrogation,” whether or not they were illegal, simply didn’t work. And you might even be surprised at who comes off looking the worst. President George W. Bush gets off a bit easier than you might expect, for example. But if you’ve either forgotten your recent American history or never knew the truth to begin with, your faith in our governmental institutions will take a further hit.
As Jones, Driver conjures moments of relatability and emotional power, and adds another stellar credit to his 2019 resume. (I’m referencing the forthcoming Marriage Story, not The Dead Don’t Die.) In the most important supporting role, Annette Bening plays Senator Diane Feinstein initially with an unrelenting sternness. But as the film progress and the CIA’s lack of humanity is revealed, Bening slowly unveils her character’s humanity. And in lesser roles, Tim Blake Nelson, Jon Hamm and Ted Levine are memorable. (The latter actor, perhaps still best known as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, is convincing as CIA Director John Brennan. Regrettably, Bill’s fictional atrocities pale against the CIA’s real horrors.)
“It’s only legal if it works,” a CIA agent tells her co-workers. That type of savage cynicism pervades Burns’ production, making it a tough watch. But it’s a necessary one for the civic-minded cinephile.