TIFF19 REVIEW: The Report [2019]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 119 minutes
    Release Date: November 15th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Amazon Studios
    Director(s): Scott Z. Burns
    Writer(s): Scott Z. Burns

It’s based on science.

It matters that Diane Feinstein and other Senators (John McCain included) fought to make the Intelligence Committee’s report on “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” public because it held information the American people needed to know about how the CIA conducted itself after 9/11. While many would say the fact nobody has been prosecuted or held accountable since for what was laid out is the most important takeaway, however, I’d disagree. To me writer/director Scott Z. Burns distilled it in one line of dialogue during his cinematic adaptation of Daniel Jones’ investigation. It’s from Feinstein’s right-hand Marcy Morris (Linda Powell) to Jones: “You’re not the one up for re-election.” That’s the answer right there. As soon as public office became a million dollar career, the truth took a backseat to self-preservation.

That’s first and foremost what The Report is about—not our nation’s torture tactics, but the current state of what’s become a partisan government without term-limits. It’s the red tape and hoops that Jones (Adam Driver) has to jump through that sticks out because the rest was just an assignment. Feinstein (Annette Bening) tasked him to create a bipartisan team (which the Republicans quit very early on) without any oversight to get to the bottom of what happened. He was told he’d have access to every pertinent piece of correspondence concerning EIT practices (he wasn’t) and that he’d be able to interview those who were involved (he wasn’t again). Despite devoting the entirety of five years to this project, it quickly starts to feel like no one cares.

Watching Jones gradually uncover details with accompanying flashbacks reenacting the crimes proves much more exciting than it sounds, but the real suspense lies in Feinstein backtracking whenever that evidence is presented to her. Jones grows more and more frustrated because his hands become tied tighter and tighter until the prospect of leaking to other senators (Scott Shepherd‘s Mark Udall) or the press (Matthew RhysNew York Times reporter) becomes a feasible alternative to the proper channels he was promised. It’s therefore tough to stay neutral when everyone seems hell-bent on keeping things quiet because times are good. Burns’ account shows the realization that very little separates Democrats and Republicans when their political futures are affected. Why chastise the CIA when silence incentivizes them to help preserve your control?

It’s impossible not to laugh as Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, and others work themselves in circles to justify what two idiot psychologists (Douglas Hodge‘s third person-loving James Mitchell and T. Ryder Smith‘s Bruce Jessen) have concocted without any background in interrogation. This is a far cry from Burns’ The Informant!, but that humor remains as an undercurrent thanks to Jones’ findings stemming from these clueless charlatans getting off on their success at manipulating the CIA into letting them psychopathically torture prisoners of war. It’s so ludicrous that I also laughed at Driver whenever we see him glaring at obfuscators and liars from the background of Senate hearings and meetings. To know what he knows and watch them fall all over themselves doing nothing must have been excruciating.

Jones loses himself in this work and yet the conventional casualties of that never factor into the plot. We don’t see the struggle of a significant other competing for time or family members worrying their son/brother/cousin has gone off the deep end. Those details would be counter-productive to the dedicated heroism Burns has put on display instead. There can be no conflict other than Feinstein’s politicking because we must believe that everything Jones has discovered and every story he tells is absolutely true. It’s how we muster up the necessary and unwavering vitriol for everyone else whether it’s the psychologists, Jon Hamm‘s smarmy Denis McDonough (Obama’s Chief of Staff), or newly confirmed CIA Director John Brennan (Ted Levine). Jones is a saint, the rest are opportunists.

We become exasperated when these monsters use buzzwords to justify their actions and angry when they become exasperated at the fact they’ve been duped into committing war crimes. They’re very intentionally colored as duplicitous, patronizing, and domineering—even Bening’s Feinstein regardless of her being the only person on Jones’ side. Burns should have leaned into the inherent humor of this circus further because he definitely understands the tone better than Adam McKay did with Vice. And by not going that extra step, Jones’ whole Boy Scout image turns somewhat grating fast. There’s been a lot of talk about Driver having Oscar chances with this role, but I can’t stop thinking how the film erases the internal complexity he needed to move beyond stalwart cypher taking on the system.

He’s a prototypical “new world” patriot who sees the importance of truth above the aisle. “The Torture Report” is his baby and The Report honors that fact by rendering him an infallible steward of justice when nobody else could fit the bill. But he’s also boring in the context of being a robot sifting through memos and emails with the emotional ability to get enraged when someone threatens his protocols. He uncovers interesting tidbits, but it’s watching those characters massage history to fit a self-serving narrative that entertains. Jones has his moments when flirting with his own “half-truth” rhetoric, but they rarely go anywhere other than warranted indignation. He’s thus most memorable when verbally lambasting “24” or ready to punch a screen showing the Zero Dark Thirty trailer.

In the end, though, that’s enough because the information itself is dramatic and tense regardless of whether the lead has the capacity to add more to it than an incredulous face. The gall of these people is astounding and every single actor on-screen ensures their character is devoid of sympathy. Their real-life counterparts used semantics to assuage their guilt and subterfuge to circumvent opposition (the film puts George W. Bush in a favorable light via the ignorance card) all to let two unqualified hacks run amok. And then the Obama administration (he’s not automatically sainted and his own questionable wartime policies aren’t ignored) played along to retain a status quo that served its interests. Truth will always be an afterthought until we burn it down and build anew.

courtesy of TIFF

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