Sundance 2019: The Report, by David Bax
Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic doesn’t hold up so well almost two decades later (maybe in a post-Wire world, its insights into the drug trade don’t quite seem to penetrate) but the movie’s legacy has more than endured. In a way, its style and approach to big issues has become a genre unto itself; sprawling, multi-angled deep dives distinguished by short, punchy scenes shot on handheld cameras with saturated color filters. The latest iteration, Scott Z. Burns’ The Report (produced, like another notable entry, Syriana, by Soderbergh himself), may be the best yet.
Adam Driver stars as Senate staffer Daniel Jones, who headed up a more than five year long investigation into the CIA’s George W. Bush-era “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture) program. Jumping back and forth through time, Burns (who also wrote the screenplay) dramatizes not only Jones’ investigation but also the staunch resistance he faced from the CIA, Republican members of congress and, eventually, the Obama administration. As Jones uncovers details and stories from the program, we see them as they are reported to have unfolded.
In a sense, then, The Report is kind of like a feature length version of one of those online “explainer” videos. But it’s an exceptionally compelling and stirring one, and with a role call of phenomenal actors, many of them playing real political figures like Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), President Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm) and CIA director John Brennan (Ted Levine). Also appearing are Jennifer Morrison, Maura Tierney, Matthew Rhys, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll, Tim Blake Nelson and more. Clearly, another lesson Burns learned from Soderbergh is how to stack a cast.
In structure and execution, Burns’ Report resembles Jones’ report. Both are meticulously researched and evenhanded factual accounts that are nevertheless motivated by passion. What was done to prisoners by Americans under this program, no matter its legality, was a moral injustice that shames us all and Burns is out to prove it, not with condescension or lecturing but with facts, to the disappointingly large percentage of the population who feels otherwise to this day. The Report has no patience for popular entertainment that legitimizes such practices either. Jones’ brief tirade against 24 is as rousing as it is funny and Burns needs only show us a glimpse of the trailer for Zero Dark Thirty to let us surmise how he feels about it.
Until its planned release in 2028 in the Obama presidential library, we won’t know the full extent of the report beyond its heavily redacted 500 page summary. But Burns’ commitment to verisimilitude is convincing (props to Slayer and Marilyn Manson for apparently okaying the use of their music in the film as torture), not to mention sometimes darkly, dispiritingly comic, like the CIA’s psychologist contractors admitting they learned about interrogation by watching a video. Then again, most of us will learn the details of the agency’s torture program by watching The Report. But, until 2028, it will more than suffice.