LFF 2019: The Report Review
Here’s a sure-fire contender for film of the year: Scott Z. Burns’ unendingly strident exploration of one man’s quest for justice is electrifying, the kind of gripping drama that only comes around once every political crisis. Adam Driver plays real-life Senate committee investigator Daniel J. Jones, who dived deep into the CIA’s post-9/11 use of ‘Enhanced Interrogation’ to produce intel on Al-Qaeda. The study led to revelations that 119 people were detained under the programme, of which 39 were tortured; six of whom were abused before any questioning took place.
Burns - taking up the director’s chair for the first time since 2006’s Pu-239 - has clearly learnt a great deal from his many collaborations with Steven Soderbergh. This is a fantastically unfussy film, and though Burns’ lighting setups are more dynamic, his simple and pointed camera placements and Greg O’Bryant’s cut-to-the-chase editing is extremely reminiscent of the Ocean’s 11 director’s iPhone-era work.
And all the better for it. The Report’s potentially dry subject matter demands clarity and rigour, especially when the dialogue is crammed chock-full of euphemistic jargon and every kind of acronym under the sun. There is a distinct danger of all emotional resonance being purged (something that Daniel is consistently ordered to do himself), but Driver’s central performance ensures this is never the case. Jones begins as hopelessly idealistic, his first post-university arrival on Capitol Hill serenaded by low-thrumming brass. He purchases a souvenir snow globe, but discards it in the office of Denis McDonough (a sly sigh of a performance from Jon Hamm) as he realises that keen schoolboy energy won’t take him very far.
Driver enforces his role with as much conviction as his character does his investigation, aided by a screenplay that makes Jones an exemplary showcase of how action drives character. We never see his home life, we never see his downtime, the briefest of opening narration explains his lack of relationships: everything about him we learn through his work.
Despite the many speeches and tirades unleashed by Jones in his pursuit of the truth, true investment is earned through watching someone simply doing their job properly - researching, fact checking, asking the right questions and holding the right people accountable; not out of some misplaced search for commendation or recognition, but because it’s the right thing to do morally and dutifully.
Intercut with the investigation are recreations of the events under scrutiny, largely the ‘scientifically proven’ methods brought to the CIA by James Mitchel (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith). The opening title omits the word ‘torture’; the film itself does not. The horrors inflicted on crucial detainees are described and shown in stark detail, filmed in a harsh yellow-nitrate in contrast with the digital clarity of Jones’ moral fibre. To hear a factual description of forced rectal rehydration is one thing - to see it is something else entirely.
Because in a world comprised of air-conditioned offices and faceless filing cabinets, it’s incredibly easy to lose sight of the human, ethical cost of what happened under Bush/Obama. The Report does not patronise or sit on the fence when it comes to political allegiance: Zero Dark Thirty is referenced on one occasion, and it calls to mind a scene in Kathryn Bigelow’s film where President Obama states that the US does not employ torture - the cast look uncomfortable for a moment, and then go back to waterboarding a man they’ve kept in solitary confinement for weeks on end. In this film, the guilt is not so easily shrugged off, and the key issue is not whether these methods produced results (which they didn’t), nor if they were morally wrong (which they were), but what their use says about America.
Of the many uncomfortable truths, a stomach-churning realisation is how our reactions (whether US citizens or not) to such crimes have changed: this was a time when outrageous revelations about the US foreign policy would cause righteous fury rather than the stale depression that follows the banal evil of today’s administration.
Much like the social media response to today’s news, however, the gut-punching injustice of it all is hammered home with appropriate volume by a ludicrously strong ensemble cast (featuring Scott Shepard, Corey Stoll, and an eyebrow-scorching Annette Bening as Jones’ supervisor, Dianne Feinstein). There’s never any fear of a bad performance under such peerless direction, in a piece that is a formal and emotional triumph - the closest a film has ever come to emulating a book that you just can’t put down.
The Report premieres as part of the BFI London Film Festival’s ‘Debate’ strand on Saturday, 5th October, before releasing in UK cinemas on November 15th.