Some of the cinema history’s most acclaimed films have revolved around stories of journalistic, procedural or investigative narratives. And with most of the selected group based on true stories, it begs the question: how can you make a gripping film where you already know the outcome of the story?
Case in point: writer/director Scott Z. Burns‘ The (
T̶o̶r̶t̶u̶r̶e̶) Report. An investigative thriller about the exposure of the CIA’s use of torture following the September 11 attacks, The Report marks the sophomore directorial effort from Burns, well-known for his collaborations with director Steven Soderbergh and for his work as screenwriter for the likes of The Bourne Ultimatum, Contagion, and Side Effects. In The Report, he’s further supported by a thematically shocking true story and a stacked array of talented performers, but will The Report engross audiences, given the known outcome of the investigations?
Led by Dianne Feinstein (played here by Annette Bening), the SIC (Senate Intelligence Committee) investigated allegations into the CIA’s methods of interrogating terrorist suspects in the years following 9/11. After many years of research and interviews, the investigation concluded that the CIA’s techniques, known as EITs (Enhanced Interrogation Techniques), were brutal, immoral, and ineffective forms of torture.
It was also revealed that the CIA knowingly and routinely misrepresented those facts to policymakers. And, as the SIC discovered, attempts to publish their findings would be blocked and discredited by both the CIA and the White House, by any means necessary.
Starring Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones, an intensely committed Senate staffer, The Report is one of the best films of the year, thanks to a sharp script, committed cast, and Burns’ uncompromising and assured approach to storytelling. Despite the well known facts, Burns manages to freshen up the story with an admirable sense of restraint and verisimilitude. There are no moments of explosive drama or searing tension in the storytelling, and the film is all the more contemplative and thoughtful because of it.
Burns is never above appropriate genre tropes (eg. a rendezvous in dark parking lots, or final shots involving the Washington monument), and there’s a clever contrast of flashback and present events through the use of colour. There’s also an interesting exploration of characters going through their own forms of torture – with the terrorist suspects going through EITs, and Jones’ and his collaborators’ suffering under physical and psychological strain throughout their decade-long investigation. Even the room that the staffers have to work in feels like an implement of torture, to the point that they become what the room represents; a hermetically sealed vessel of the emotional and mental turmoil of America’s legacy.
Burns’ script deftly points out the horrific facts of the investigation with hints of dark humour, while retaining the humanity of the situation. Lines like “They asked you to build a boat, but they had no intention of sailing it,” truly hit home dramatically, and some characterizations border on brutally comical (both Cyrus Clifford and Bruce Jessen come off as a couple of sleazy salesmen). In addition, the use of pop culture references (including nods to the TV show 24 and the acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty) is both amusing and thematically incisive, the latter in particular adding to the narrative that it was thanks to the morally dangerous EITs that Osama Bin Laden was successfully taken out.
Ultimately, however, the film truly owes much of its power to the cast. Driver and Bening head up a bountiful ensemble of familiar faces – including Jon Hamm, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Corey Stoll, Matthew Rhys, Tim Blake Nelson, Jennifer Morrison and more – and they give it their absolute all. Bening looks energized as Feinstein, giving a great performance that manages to convey an interior struggle between revealing the discoveries (that would be considered as war crimes) and the political ramifications that would result from doin so.
But The Report is really Driver’s vehicle, and alongside other 2019 projects like The Dead Don’t Die, Marriage Story and, of course, The Rise of Skywalker, this is really his year. Gradual and subtle physical transformations – posture, speech, even the twitch of an eye – convincingly portray an inner struggle, between doing his job and his growing horror of and opposition to what he’s uncovering. The incorruptible tenacity of Jones is so enthralling in Driver’s hands that scenes of potentially dry exposition never bore nor feel convoluted or preachy.
The Report is, quite simply, one of the best films of the year, hearkening back to the best political thrillers, such as All The President’s Men and Spotlight. It’s old-fashioned, humane storytelling, driven by assured direction and sharp script, all brought together by a powerhouse ensemble, led by Driver on top form. Highly recommended.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Report will be showing in limited cinemas from today, and will premiere on Amazon Prime on November 29th.