‘The Report’ Stumbles, But Isn’t Torture

by Warren Cantrell on November 14, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

A ruthless attention to detail and a near-fanatical commitment to accurately portray the mechanics of legislative jurisprudence are the defining attributes of The Report, both to its benefit and detriment. For a solid two hours, Adam Driver scrolls through endless reams of documents while unraveling a complex tangle of obfuscation and outright deceit, coming up for air in quick pockets to soliloquy in earnest about what it all means. Interesting though it may be, the story told in The Report suffers from its own built-in limitations, which inevitably stifle the shocking conclusions it has to offer.

The Report starts in media res, with Daniel J. Jones (Driver) talking to his lawyer about potential espionage charges related to the transfer of sensitive government documents. This leads to the first of a series of time-jumps that keep the audience aligned with the non-linear path the narrative takes, starting just a couple of years after 9/11, when Jones is looking to get his foot in the door on D.C.’s Capitol Hill. Senate aide Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm) is impressed with Jones’ bona fides, yet turns him down for a Senate staffing job, recommending instead a different career path for the young man due to Republican control of the government. It’s good advice, and it leads Jones to pursue a career with the F.B.I., where he rises quickly through the ranks as a counter-terrorism expert.

By 2007, when Democrats have wrested some control of the government back from the Republicans, an investigation is launched into the C.I.A.’s detention and interrogation practices following the revelation that the Agency had destroyed video recordings of their “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) taps Jones to lead the investigation into the C.I.A.’s work, which she had been assured was legal and ethical: promises that seem suspect in light of the destruction of the tapes. To get to the bottom of things, Jones and his small team pour over literally millions of emails, cables, and reports from those involved in the interrogations, piecing things together in a forensic-like study.

As Jones’ investigation gets closer to implicating the C.I.A. and G.W. Bush’s Justice Department in behavior that ranged from misguided to criminal, the political components of D.C.’s swamp begin to surface. The Report is at its best when it is pulling the audience between Jones’ idealistic truth crusading and Feinstein’s cold pragmatism: both of which are shown to be valid in their own way. Bening is marvelous as the seasoned and savvy Senator from California, who knows how the “truth” can be weaponized regardless of those implicated. A 2011 call between Feinstein and President Obama illustrates this tricky balancing act with pitch perfect precision, showing how political considerations play into the manner in which the report can be released (if at all). Feinstein must explain to a horrified Jones that despite his findings, the C.I.A. can’t exactly be called out for their naughty behavior after they’ve just finished a successful operation to kill Osama Bin Laden right before an election year.

It’s interesting stuff, and it is assembled well vis a vis the flashbacks that take the audience back and forth between Jones’ investigation and the torture sessions themselves. The “enhanced interrogations” are bracing, even by way of the dramatizations, and bring home the realities espoused by the puffed-up, tough-talking suits at the C.I.A. and Justice Department who lobbied for this “gloves off” approach. Where The Report stumbles a bit is with its lead, however, for Jones is the audience’s guide throughout all of this, yet as a character he’s very much a blank slate. Some cursory biographical information is offered early in the picture to give Jones some background as a man interested in public service without much time for a personal life, yet that’s about it. What drives, inspires, or scares Jones remains a mystery, and while that puts the eponymous report directly at the center of things, it doesn’t leave much room for personal engagement with the characters.

And that’s all leaving aside the elephant in this room, which is indeed imposing…

What scandal of 2019 doesn’t blow the one presented in The Report right out of the goddamned water? Sure, the United States turned to unethical, brutal, and ineffective torture methods following the September 11th attacks, then covered up near-unanimous feedback that it was ineffective, only to then double-down again on these faulty conclusions to justify the crimes. That’s all despicable, yet it seems almost quaint to most observers in the Trump era. When the President of the United States wages a prolonged attack on the free press (“fake news”), the Constitution (“phony” emoluments), and the citizenry (whistleblower “traitors”): how can an audience be expected to work up the necessary indignation for a Bush/Obama-era scandal?  

One can’t really fault the movie for this, as its intentions are honorable, and the story is indeed one that should be told. If anything, it makes a person reminisce about the days when America was still the kind of country where high-level cover-ups were necessary to keep the lid on shady doings: not one where party loyalties shield administrations with all the dutiful obedience of a beaten dog to its cruel master. The Report does a fine job edging around this point, and to its credit, saves some piercing judgment for the naivete of the Obama administration for thinking that it could horse-trade favors with a political opposition that never intended to act in the same good faith.

The Report is thus an interesting, if somewhat impersonal investigative drama, more akin to newspaper flicks like The Post, All the President’s Men, Spotlight, or even The Paper than its subject matter colleague, Zero Dark Thirty. It’s got the teeth of those former pictures in terms of the scope and importance of the subject matter, and a commitment to the truth that the latter doesn’t, even if The Report does run a bit thinner on the character side of things. It’s worth seeing, if only to prove that Donald Trump hasn’t ruined EVERYTHING, including an audience’s capacity for outrage.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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