The Report is an exciting and intriguing political thriller that concerns true events from not that long ago, and manages to keep things highly suspenseful. In part, that’s because these events have been so buried and overtaken by more recent controversies that even the most hardened political junkies might not remember the exact details of them.
Recalling ’70s conspiracy thrillers, The Report is directed by Scott Z. Burns, the screenwriter best known for his work with Steven Soderbergh, including on The Informant!, Contagion, and recent misfire The Laundromat. Soderbergh, one of several producers, is a clear influence on the style and pacing here, although The Report also recalls Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, even as it refutes some of the central facts of that film, and goes so far as to call it out by name.
The Report tells the story of Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), a staffer with the Senate Intelligence Committee who is assigned to investigate the “enhanced interrogation techniques” — also known as torture — that were carried out by the Bush Cheney-era CIA following the 9/11 attacks. Yes, this is the first movie since Quiz Show (which just marked its 25th anniversary) in which the hero is a Congressional committee staffer.
The plot follows Jones’ six-year quest to investigate torture, write the 7,000-page report, and then fight for the release of it, all while he and a few colleagues are holed up in a secure building. The Report goes back and forth between the work on the report in the present day and the CIA’s decision to torture back in the Bush years, taking the position — contra Zero Dark Thirty — that none of the “enhanced” techniques delivered anything valuable, that the CIA and multiple administrations lied about their effectiveness, and that the consultants who pushed it (Douglas Hodge and T. Ryder Smith) were essentially charlatans.
In all, the film’s outrage is bipartisan; its hero is a Democrat, working for a Democratic senator, out to expose war crimes committed under a Republican Administration. But we also see the Obama White House working to suppress the report as well, out of a desire for bipartisanship and to stay on the CIA’s good side. The film also treats the late GOP Sen. John McCain with reverence.
John Brennan (played by Ted Levine), the Obama-appointed CIA director who currently plays a starring role in Trumpist conspiracy theories, comes off particularly craven, as does second-term Obama White House chief of staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm.)
In all, the movie shows that there were a lot of bad actors in the executive branch prior to the current administration. Then again, one of the CIA officers shown to be complicit in the torture (Maura Tierney) is Gina Haspel, who is now director of the CIA. (Also, there’s a scene in which a group of men with bad intentions illegally charge into a SCIF room. On the day the movie showed at PFF, several Republican members of Congress did the same thing in real life.)
Perhaps most intriguingly, The Report wrestles with the very much of-the-moment question of whether a government employee with explosive information about wrongdoing should become a whistleblower, leak to the press or to Wikileaks, or do neither. We won’t give away what Jones did, except to say that there’s a reason you know Edward Snowden’s name by heart, and not his.
It must be pointed out that the film is unmistakably Daniel Jones’ side of the story, told from his point of view and describing his version of events. There’s a good chance certain people depicted, most likely the numerous Obama Administration veterans with prominent media perches, will be disputing it in the weeks ahead.
Driver is outstanding, as usual, in the lead role, turning in a performance that’s helped by him plausibly looking like someone who would be a Hill staffer. His character never comes across as smug, which is a frequent trap for this sort of role. It’s also the second movie of the fall and the festival — Marriage Story being the other — in which a lawyer tells Adam Driver that he’s expected to pay a six-figure retainer that he’ll never be able to afford.
Annette Bening, meanwhile, disappears into the role of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and honestly one of the film’s more suspenseful aspects is whether Feinstein will ultimately do the right thing. And while Levine looks uncannily like John Brennan, I don’t recall McDonough being nearly as handsome as Jon Hamm. Matthew Rhys, who played a spy in The Americans and Daniel Ellsberg in The Post, is also well-cast as a New York Times national security reporter.
Recent news events indicate very strongly that we’re going to get a glut of movies in the next few years about serious government wrongdoing, and those tasked with investigating and exposing it. I wouldn’t be shocked if Scott Z. Burns ends up involved with some of them. Hopefully those films will be as nuanced, well-crafted and entertaining as The Report.
The 2019 Philadelphia Film Festival runs from October 17-27.