The Report serves as proof that a film can achieve total moral clarity and still come off as such a sanctimonious screed that you want to check its sources when you leave the screening room. All the facts check out, obviously, since the source in question is the eponymous report – the U.S. Senate Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program. Released in 2014, after more than a decade of research and a frankly unsurprising amount of attempts to shield the public from the information (the majority of the report still remains redacted), the report details a horrifying chapter in U.S. history, one of inhumane torture and indefinite detention of people of questionable importance, to obtain information that was already widely known, as part of an unwinnable “war on terror.” This film is fiercely angry about this operation, righteously so, and while that should be a galvanizing force that engages the audience, in practice it never moves past the feel of soapbox screaming.
It’s an uncomfortable spot to be in, critiquing a film as being too preachy when you agree with everything it’s preaching. Maybe that’s the problem – The Report is evangelizing to the already-converted, preaching to the choir as if the choir doesn’t already know the hymns. Its intrinsic outrage is completely understandable, but rather than engaging the audience to commiserate with that outrage, the film is content to dictate data points with escalating insistence, like a seminar where the professor eventually just starts shouting.
That dictatorial mode is the unfortunate result of what is actually an ambitious thematic undertaking: attempting to illuminate the messy crossroads between analytical reporting and emotional fury. Leading us down that thin line is Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), the Senate staffer in Dianne Feinstein’s office who was tasked with investigating the CIA’s protocols during its post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts. Jones was inspired by the 9/11 attacks to study national security and play an active role in shaping policy, and what he discovers is that the CIA was similarly jolted by those tragic events, albeit to subvert diplomatic conventions rather than defend them. In the aftermath of a deadly attack on U.S. soil, the Agency pivoted to more aggressive “Enhanced Interrogation” strategies, which is merely a more acceptable stand-in term for torture. Starvation. Sleep Deprivation. Waterboarding. All under the guise of “keeping America safe,” but for what tangible gain, and at what cost?
That’s the chief question Jones reckons with, over a period of years, reviewing more than 6 million pages of classified documents that the CIA is reticent to hand over. He also operates with very little assistance, since Republican staffers were eventually instructed not to participate in the investigation – an unfortunate partisan move, since it becomes clear that the CIA acted almost unilaterally in its Detention and Interrogation program, skirting any form of governmental oversight, not even fully briefing then-president George W. Bush until the torture practices were in place for several years. All of this is horrifying, though the impact is slightly blunted because The Report struggles to manage all of the dense information across such an extended period – shuffling timelines, exiting and reintroducing characters, the requirement to inform often outweighing the luxury of entertaining. Eventually the screenplay falls into a simple structure: Jones researches a new document, which leads to an incriminating flashback, which leads to a fervent meeting at Feinstein’s office, where the Senator ponders the appropriate time to release the information.
Annette Bening plays Feinstein, in a performance that somehow fully actualizes both the positive and negative possibilities of such a portrayal. Bening conveys every ounce of gravitas possible in the role, and the film rightly represents Feinstein as a tireless crusader for exposing corruption and championing human rights. And yet there’s something so formally stodgy about the depiction, as if all the right ingredients still couldn’t overcome the feel of an obvious impersonation. It’s a very specific characterization that never feels quite settled within this filmic environment that is striving for such laser-fine incisiveness.
In fairness to both Bening and Feinstein, that may well be because the film fails to become what it wants to be. Scott Z. Burns is the film’s director, a prolific writer for whom this film feels like a feature directorial debut (though he did helm an HBO original feature in 2006). Burns is at his best as a scribe of crackling precision with emotion as the hidden wallop just beneath the surface. With The Report, however, he adopts the point-of-view of the Driver character, focused and matter-of-fact until the incessant bombardment of upsetting facts makes the emotional outrage impossible to contain. It’s the appropriate angle from which to approach this material, but the problem for Burns is that he isn’t actually shocked by any of this information. So charting the journey – Burns’ screenwriting strength – gets lost amid the quick pivot to seething anger. That anger is understandable and relatable, the correct response to such humanitarian atrocities. But The Report’s hastiness to call out injustice hinders its ability to reveal it cinematically.