The sad machinations of the crooked “War on Terror” have provided ample fodder for movies in the last few weeks, from the British whistleblower drama Official Secrets to Chris Morris’ satire The Day Shall Come. Perhaps the most serious and outwardly prestige of the crop is The Report, which examines the infamous “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the American authorities on prisoners suspected of links to terrorist groups. It’s a tense, chilly movie that forces the audience deep into the murk of secrecy and corruption.
Our pair of eyes into this dark, shadowy world is Senate investigator Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who has been tasked with compiling a report looking into the ethics and legality of EITs. He regularly feeds back to experienced Democrat senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) on his findings, but soon discovers that there are many members of the US establishment who don’t want the report to ever see the light of day.
Driver’s character is immediately put on the back foot when he is assigned to the report, working in a basement office with no paper and no printing facilities. “Paper has a way of getting people into trouble,” he is told. There’s a really satisfying, methodical pace to the story, which unfolds as a combination of character study and political thriller, with scenes of Driver’s unravelling mental state intercut with flashbacks illustrating the campaign of torture pursued under the guise of national security. “It’s only legal if it works” is the chilling repeated mantra.
The man behind the camera is Scott Z. Burns, making his directorial debut after years as a seasoned screenwriter of based-on-truth drama with films like The Informant and this year’s The Laundromat. He’s clearly a fan of definite articles. There’s a satisfying sweep of mounting tension to The Report, with Burns largely capable of wading through the narrative sludge of the pages of necessary exposition. Much of this is delivered in scenes between Driver and Bening, with the latter conveying real gravitas as a political mediator who knows how to play the game.
Driver, too, delivers exactly the kind of meticulous performance audiences have come to expect. Arriving in UK cinemas in tandem with his inevitably Oscar-contending turn in Netflix drama Marriage Story, this is a performance of many shades. Daniel starts as a maestro of slightly detached, righteous snark but becomes increasingly manic as the report gets into his head and drives obsession and desperation.
Some of that desperation inevitably transfers to the audience, who are confronted with the hard facts of torture right in front of their eyes. The scenes of EITs in action are uncompromising and terrifying and Burns’ script fills in the gaps with some horrifying details. When it is stated that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times without delivering a shred of actionable intelligence, it’s difficult not to share the fury of Driver’s character. The film is on his side, and the audience is too.
The problem is that some of the satisfying structure and sweep of The Report falls away in the final movement, as the storytelling becomes murkier and more tangled. It’s all about Senate debates, complicated internal decisions and the collision between politics and the law, without ever getting a handle on all of those ideas. A climactic scene of people power on Capitol Hill is heartening – particularly as our own Parliament in Britain flounders on a daily basis – and on-screen text only serves to hammer home the movie’s arguments even further.
This is an elegantly made drama from Burns, making an assured debut behind the camera. It’s another scientific example of acting craft from Driver as he continues a hell of a year, set to culminate with Star Wars at Christmas. Although it loses its way a little in the labyrinthine web of the third act, the film emerges as a stark depiction of one of the more shameful periods of recent American history.
Dir: Scott Z. Burns
Scr: Scott Z. Burns
Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Corey Stoll, Jennifer Morrison, Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew Rhys, Douglas Hodge, T. Ryder Smith, Michael C. Hall
Prd: Scott Z. Burns, Jennifer Fox, Danny Gabai, Eddy Moretti, Kerry Orent, Steven Soderbergh, Michael Sugar
DOP: Eigil Bryld
Music: David Wingo
Run time: 120 mins
The Report is out in selected UK cinemas from 15th November.