Scott Z. Burns’ The Report is an exceedingly bleak and complex film that focuses on heavy subjects with sophistication and maturity, including some brutal depictions of torture. It’s also primarily a dialogue based film so, if you don’t enjoy quick-witted, back-and-forth conversations that serve as narrative exposition, this might not be the movie for you. In fact, the only real “action” we see is during the before-mentioned torture scenes, which aren’t exactly easy to appreciate – even if, objectively, they are very well shot.
The Report focuses on Senate staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) as he investigates the CIA’s use of torture in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Working for Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Benning), Jones learns of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on suspected terrorists involved with 9/11. Working with a small team attempting to uncover the truth, he develops a 6,700 page report that details the various inhumane and unlawful techniques used by the CIA. When he tries to publish his findings, however, The White House and CIA repeatedly try to prevent them from going public. The film then follows the messy journey Jones must go through to seek justice for both himself and those affected by the enhanced interrogation techniques.
It’s clearly an informed project, Burns has had a history of writing layered, thrilling, and paranoia inducing storylines, including Contagion, Side Effects, and The Informant!. Like all the aforementioned films, The Report shows a similar restraint in drama and action, while also maintaining a charming dry comedy.
As someone who struggles to keep up with or understand politics, this movie managed to be fairly clear at a basic level. At times, it even seemed to dumb itself down to extreme levels – characters repeating back long stretches of information for no clear reason other than to update the audience of what’s going on. It’s understandable why this is done though, as it’s a film that easily could have been extremely dull and repetitive. Despite this, The Report‘s plot manages to keep itself entertaining through the use of smartly-done time jumps, excellent visual filmmaking, and use of it’s incredibly talented cast.
Driver carries a hefty weight during this movie. He’s the sole perspective throughout the whole thing, and isn’t given any charming or teary-eyed background story that makes him a comendible, good-hearted main character to root for. In fact, we’re not given any information about his backstory at all. Yet, he remains an admirable protagonist due to the convincing passion, integrity, and selflessness that Driver manages to inject into his character. Without such a subtle and delicately-handled performance, The Report would’ve surely failed entirely, as Driver’s character is what convinces us to care about the issues going on in the first place.
As mentioned before, the film is well-crafted. Flashy scene compositions and set designs are exchanged for minimalistic but authentic environments that reflect the cold, stark nature of the plot. Noticeably, sound is used sparingly, with most of the film having no music at all – and instead focusing on the dialogue between characters. The Report also uses various cues to create a severe distinction between the life of Jones and other government officials versus those being tortured by the CIA. For example, most of Jones’s scenes have relatively no soundtrack – except maybe for light music. Meanwhile, the Islamist hostages are always featured with loud heavy metal sound effects, such as the punching, kicking, and waterboarding they endure. The use of contradictory elements in these opposing environments help establish how completely different they are. It also pushes the irony that government officials, who usually appear so clean and organized, are the ones creating an atmosphere of such violent chaos.
Though The Report is well-made and well-intentioned, it’s still important to discuss the simple fact that no movie is ever truly accurate. Even with a filmmaker trying to be their most honest and impartial, there will always be some bias – no matter what. Throughout The Report, you have to question where that bias presents itself. I think the largest example of it might be in its treatment of those opposed to the report, such as John Brennan, James Elmer Mitchell, Bruce Jessen, etc.
Regardless of what your opinion is on those characters, it’s important to understand what their reasoning was for supporting the CIA’s brutal interrogation methods. At times, it was questionable if the film intentionally misrepresented what they were thinking to make the characters appear ridiculously childish and evil. This isn’t an attempt at defending those characters, but more a question of whether their intentions really were so simplistically cruel.
The Report, despite being consistently mature and layered, was noticeably lacking when it tried to explain the side of those involved in the CIA interrogations. Again, their side doesn’t need to be justified or even sympathized with, but it could’ve been elaborated on. All that we really get to explain their thinking is a brief speech from Driver’s character, where he admits that fear pushed them to engage with excessive hostility. If The Report had maybe elaborated on that idea, and followed the whole concept of how fear pushes us to do inhumane things, then it would’ve added an extra-layer of depth.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars
The Report is a harsh piece of cinema that not everyone will want to watch due to its odd mix of brutality and simplicity. The film is ambitious in the information it wants to convey, but is surprisingly rudimentary in the intended themes, messages, and lasting implications. Despite this, it’s still a well-crafted movie aided by sophisticated cinematography, refined editing, and stellar acting from Driver.