Longtime Steven Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns writes and directs The Report, an extremely thorough and incredibly dry movie about the controversial Senate report on the US’s use of torture in the post-9/11 era. This film relies heavily on Adam Driver, particularly his ability to emote repressed passion and his unexpectedly soulful eyes every time someone is on the brink of Letting Down Democracy. The Report is as dedicated to reminding everyone that narcs f-cking suck as Zero Dark Thirty is dedicated to selling torture as a permissible interrogation tactic. And yes, Zero Dark Thirty gets a shout in The Report, in case Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were hoping everyone forgot how the CIA made them a patsy in the torture debate. (“Torture debate”.)
Filmmakers keep trying to do “All the President’s Men but…” with their policy wonk movies, and The Report is definitely “All the President’s Men but the CIA torture report”. There are two problems with that: 1) All the President’s Men is 95% about the chemistry of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford and 5% about the political intrigue, and 2) in The Report, Driver has no one to bounce off. He needs a Woodward to his Bernstein, but Driver, as intelligence analyst Daniel Jones, has no work partner with whom to share chemistry. Driver is fully capable of doing a one-man show, and he definitely carries The Report, but this subject see-saws between nauseating and highly technical—he could really use a screen partner to leaven the mix. Annette Bening co-stars as Senator Diane Feinstein, whose senate office backs the investigation, but her role is relegated to sitting behind desks (one time she stands behind a desk). Driver just needs someone to go on this journey with him and provide push to his pull. The two scenes in which Matthew Rhys pops in as a journalist leap out because for a moment, Driver isn’t just spitting exposition at a stern Bening, he is actually engaging with another viewpoint.
But the whole point of The Report is how thankless the task of researching and writing the CIA torture report is, and probably the real Daniel Jones spent a lot of time isolated while toiling on the report, but take some dramatic license, PLEASE. Burns must have had an instinct about this because he structures his film in a back-and-forth fashion that moves between past and present, between Dan’s investigation and the CIA developing and carrying out the “enhanced interrogation” program in the wake of 9/11. The structure at least breaks up the really dry bits with the really upsetting bits, so that’s…something.
This is an important story that deserves to be told, but The Report relies almost solely on the viewer having a counterargument to “torture is bad”. The kind of person inclined to watch The Report is probably also the kind of person who already thinks torture is bad, so it’s just preaching to the choir. Honestly, more interesting than the CIA being a bunch of sh-tbag narcs who gladly hire obvious f-cking psychopaths to teach them to torture—if you ever meet a psychologist who spends their downtime developing an organized system to break a human being’s will, run in the opposite direction as fast as possible, that person IS a serial killer—are the scenes in which various people try to guess what Daniel Jones does or does not know. The most effective “oh sh-t” moment is when the CIA realizes Daniel has inadvertently gained access to a damning piece of evidence and try to Keystone Kops their way out of it. Burns chose to make Daniel Jones the center of the story, undoubtedly because his unwavering dedication to the process and duty to truth are very laudable, but that doesn’t mean he is the best axis for a narrative. If it weren’t for Adam Driver’s perfectly calibrated performance, The Report wouldn’t work at all. As is, Driver muscles The Report to watchability and reconfirms everyone’s belief that torture is bad.