The Report: Facts and Figures, by Scott Nye
The United States tortures people. It has tortured people, it does torture people, and it will torture many more people in the years to come. It tortures people in an effort to drive them from their homes and seize their land, it tortures its enemies, it tortures racial and sexual minorities behind closed doors of police stations in every state. In the modern context, this torture tends to be instigated by the Republican party and tolerated by the Democrats for fear they will lose office to Republicans. This effectively makes it a bipartisan operation, so systematic and widespread, so common and so protected to the point that it is nearly irremovable.
Writer/director Scott Z. Burns’ new film The Report focuses on Daniel Jones’ tenure as the lead investigator for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, during which he compiled a comprehensive report on the so-called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” the CIA employed on so-called “suspected terrorists” in the years after 9/11. Played by Adam Driver, Jones is portrayed as tenacious, passionate, and singularly focused on making public his findings, stymied at every turn by political hesitancy and bureaucratic suppression. The film reads to me as a fair and accurate summary of the history both of the report and the actions Jones investigates. It digs into the political mess that created the torture program and helped sustain it, both as ongoing action and political legacy. It acknowledges the horrific decisions by the Bush administration to initiate it and the cowardly decision by the Obama administration to bury it in the past. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) acts as our main window into this complicated political web, and she too is portrayed as at once Jones’ champion and his most immediate foil, as she has to constantly weigh the political implications of following his findings.
This is all fine, as a sort of limited history. The film has two central, debilitating problems though. First, that history becomes extremely limited as the film puts the country’s continued torture of minority groups (most obviously in recent years in the form of immigrant detention camps) into a one-time box that is now closed, if not fully resolved. Second, it is only a film of history. There is virtually no psychological or dramatic edge to it, nearly no real characters to speak of, and is rife with scenes that add nothing to the central story it is trying to tell. The EIT program is all there, packaged into a neat bow, with Adam Driver providing an easy summary for why it began and why it continued, with no effort to artistically portray either the mindset from which it stemmed nor the effect of its discovery.
Told in what feels like billions of too-short scenes, The Report is assembly filmmaking, desperate to fill in the facts with little effort to give them context or meaning. Dozens of ill-advised “flashbacks” to the program itself just plainly portray what Driver is uncovering. Filmed in a high-contrast mid-2000s high-grain yellow-lit handheld aesthetic to differentiate it from the plainer, gray, crisp photography following Jones, these scenes certainly get across how horrific the torture was, but its sense of perspective is lost. Do they indicate that he already knew what was happening before formally investigating it? Or is it just a lazy way to illustrate his findings? Neither are a compelling reason to cut away from the main action of the film, and these flashbacks only distance us from our protagonist without filling in the actual drama of the torture program, only there long enough to indicate the growing unease amongst a few and the growing resolve amongst too many without exploring how either came to be fortified.
The Report’s only perspective is “this was wrong, and the public must know.” Both are noble, honest goals, but ultimately only opinion. For those in the audience who already share these opinions, there’s little to attach oneself to; for the rest, its effect is a one-time deal. The film offers little to reconsider, to linger on, to burrow into the mind and keep working away. Adam Driver and Annette Bening are capable actors. Driver is tasked with a lot more technical demands than he often is, having to recite the details of the report in long speeches as though the knowledge is at once recently-learned and deeply-ingrained, a balance he pulls off well. Better are the moments when Jones ventures outside the walls of government to speak to reporters or lawyers, with whom he can’t be as forthcoming, but must convey some essential truth to set them on their way. Bening doesn’t overindulge her portrayal of one of the country’s most famous senators; her even-keeled politician has to be urged along every step of the way. We maybe didn’t need three scenes of Feinstein offering some vague commentary on Jones’ findings before leaving the room and forcing Jones to turn to staffer Marcy (Linda Powell) and ask what the hell that was about, but the film is just that kind of redundant.
Burns made his directorial debut in 2006 with the little-seen Pu-239 (maybe the title was too memorable) before embarking on a steady screenwriting career, most notably his frequent collaborations with Steven Soderbergh (The Informant!, Contagion, Side Effects, plus this year’s The Laundromat). The Report is his first film in ten years, and shows a certain influence from Soderbergh (the mixed media, the cool widescreen palette, the rhythms of exposition), and certainly little of his own personality, whatever that may be. I’m sure the purpose of informing the public was just too important to bother with any of that, but that’s the stuff that keeps them coming around long after the headlines have faded. We may not have learned the lessons from the torture program, but twelve years on from Rendition, we should at least have learned the lessons from making bad movies about it.