You and I may never get access to the classified 6,700-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture in the War on Terror, and many are just as unlikely to read the 525-page executive summary released to the public in 2014.
But with “The Report,” writer-director Scott Z. Burns’ adrenalized dramatization of the CIA’s gravely ill-conceived actions and the rigor and righteousness with which Senate staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) unearthed its harrowing details, two hours is enough intake time to convince anyone that the quest for accountability in government is as necessary as ever.
Though it premiered at Sundance in January, “The Report” is likely to hold even more significance to news-savvy audiences now, what with impeachment hearings in the wake of a whistleblower’s accusation of presidential wrongdoing. The movie might need that headline-adjacent curiosity from audiences, too: For all the ways Burns has condensed a mountain of disturbing information into an efficient narrative of obfuscation and moral clarity — complicated sifting jobs being something of a screenwriting specialty of his (“The Laundromat,” “The Informant!”) — it’s still essentially a timeline talkathon with only a passing resemblance to the tactile, human ’70s political thrillers (“All the President’s Men,” “Three Days of the Condor”) it aspires to resemble.
In 2007, Jones was an eager young FBI-trained investigator with do-gooder dreams when he was tasked by Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) to head an investigation into why the CIA destroyed tapes of detainee interrogations. The scope widened in 2009, despite grumblings from minority Republicans about potential anti-Bush bias, to encompass the CIA’s entire detainee interrogation program. Jones found himself working for years afterward in a secure CIA basement room with no interview-conducting power, but with access to thousands of pages of internal agency documents.
What he and his team find kicks off the movie’s flashback structure, which toggles between the investigation storyline (dominated by cinematographer Eigil Bryld’s fixed-camera shots inside sterile offices and outside imposing government buildings) and the handheld, amber-hued post-9/11 narrative starring an under-the-gun, desperate CIA eager to thwart another attack at any cost. Agency head George Tenet (Dominic Fumusa, “Divorce”), wary of the FBI being given pride of interrogation in making prosecutable cases against terrorists, insists on his people being “the tip of the spear” in handling detainees with possibly actionable information.
The new directive leads bullish CIA operative Bernadette (Maura Tierney) to recruit a pair of arrogant, tough-talking Air Force psychologists (Douglas Hodge and T. Ryder Smith), who hawk an assaultive method for extracting information they claim is based in science. What looks alarmingly like torture, though, to a horrified physician’s assistant and black site employee (Tim Blake Nelson) — as well as to appalled FBI agent Ali Soufan (Fajer Kaisi), whose own non-violent questioning of a detainee led to the naming of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — is given the legal OK from inside the White House, and a euphemism: enhanced interrogation techniques.
Once Jones compiles his damning catalogue of the program, the second half of “The Report” details the intense pushback he and the more even-keeled Feinstein receive from new CIA chief John Brennan (a memorably gruff Ted Levine) about releasing a report that explodes the agency’s lies about enhanced interrogations’ effectiveness. The chess match of maneuvering and threats eventually embroils crusading Democratic senator Mark Udall (Scott Shepherd, “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie”), a CIA lawyer (Michael C. Hall), a national security reporter (Matthew Rhys), and Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, played with just the right amount of delicate smugness by Jon Hamm.
Driver’s angry-nerd wattage as a sleuthing public servant on a curtain-pulling mission is a powerful engine of forthrightness across the movie’s many behind-closed-doors confrontations, as is Bening’s stateswoman gravitas in trying to keep Jones from screwing the pooch with his impulsive reactions to all the stonewalling. Their scenes together, like two shades of civil-servant heroism, are well-handled, but they amount to the only non-mouthpiece moments of human complexity in a film that ultimately cares next to nothing about personal lives outside DC office walls, save the occasional reference to the protagonists’ lack of sleep.
Burns has done a formidable job putting the issues of torture, transparency, and accountability front and center through his depiction of the story’s key players; you’ll seethe at the psychologists’ shiftless cruelty, then wince at how the Obama administration helped protect the CIA. “The Report” is nothing if not wide-ranging in whose feet it holds to the fire.
But Burns’ treatment of the idealistic Jones is closer to a video game avatar swatting away obstacles with the sword of knowledge than a flesh-and-blood person enduring a bureaucratic ordeal. There’s no denying that Driver — with film after film cementing his status as a top-tier actor — is excellent at exasperated outrage, but it’s not enough emotion to save “The Report” from feeling like a handsomely mounted, expertly researched op-ed.