Much of the controversy surrounding the new movie Joker is based on the public’s seeming distaste for watching a movie that reminds us too much of the world we’re living in now, one that can be dark, cold and cruel. We are supposed to escape when we go to the movies, right? Well, in Joker’s case, sometimes the job of the movie is to be a commentary on modern society and the effects it can have on the individual. And then there are the kinds of movies which offer neither an escape nor a commentary, but instead are dramatic re-tellings of real events, their purpose being to tell the story of someone or something that may have changed the course of history, or, in the case of the docudrama The Report, shine a light on something that had, until then, been in the dark.
There is no escaping in The Report. Writer/director Scott Z. Burns’ analytical deep dive into the investigation of the CIA’s post 9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program by a staffer of Senator Dianne Feinstein is just as current and flavorless as it sounds. Annette Bening plays Feinstein and Adam Driver plays Daniel J. Jones, who is tasked with looking into the claims that the CIA may have been subverting the Department of Justice mandates against torture while interrogating captured suspected Al Qaeda fighters. While the details of the report and their findings are fascinating (and truly terrifying), the drama of The Report comes from the political infighting that occurred within our own system, where it seemingly was every agency for itself in a cover-up that ran so deep, the bottom still may never be known.
The Report strikes a unique tone, somewhere between Zero Dark Thirty’s patriotism-at-all-costs and Spotlight’s dogged pursuit of the truth. Driver is his usual first-rate self, capturing Jones’ relentlessness and focus well, and it’s all incredibly compelling and revealing, but Burns doesn’t quite know how to build a tone, and The Report ends up playing more as a procedural than the thriller it’s trying to be.
Perhaps because Burns knew how dry and un-cinematic it is to watch a guy literally spend years on a computer reading through transcripts and writing a report, he decided the way to inject drama into the movie was to juxtapose the daily pattern of Jones’ report-centered existence with dramatic reenactments of the events he was trying to bring to light. In other words, if you go to see The Report, prepare yourself to see scenes of torture and other “interrogation techniques” that are guaranteed to not only make you squirm in your seat, but long for some nice escapist entertainment like Joker. I’m sure Burns’ intent was to point out just how inhumane and wrong torture is and to serve to incite every viewer to take up arms against all such policies in the future, but these scenes in this movie don’t quite work in the way they were intended. Likewise the depictions of the people running the programs, both in the Middle East and in Washington, who come off as a bit too cartoonish in their clear villainy. The issues and conflicts that drive The Report are incredibly complicated and impossible to fully address in a short 2-hour movie, which ends up making it feel almost like Government for Dummies.
Where The Report really does work, however, is with the performances of Driver and Bening, who each make as much with the screenplay as they can. While Driver is forced to nearly yell an emphatic “why don’t you listen to ME” or “Can’t you see what’s going ON” speech almost every five minutes, he still manages to NOT chew every piece of scenery around him, reminding us that he really is able to find calibration in even the most broadly-tuned roles. As for Bening, her Senator Feinstein in the best thing in the movie, as she nearly underplays a role that is, on paper, designed to be the hero. She makes us root for her, yes, but she also very clearly delineates the fact that she is simply trying to do her job, which is to oversee and call out any acts against our country or constitution. It is not possible to understate the importance of what her position is and the decisions she makes, yet Bening finds the way to modulate her performance with reflection and patience that will make you wish she were your Senator.
The Report is a somewhat conflicted movie about a somewhat conflicted piece of American history, but, despite is dryness and occasional roaring off track, the essence is compelling. If you enjoy the inner workings of Congress and back room agency pissing matches, then you will totally dig this movie. You might find yourself repulsed by a lot more than the torture scenes, and that’s exactly the point.