'The Report': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Deserves an 'A' for effort.

Scott Z. Burns' thriller stars Adam Driver as a dogged Senate aide investigating the CIA's use of torture under the protection of Dianne Feinstein, played by Annette Bening in this dramatization of actual events.

Audaciously cerebral and unabashedly granular, writer-director Scott Z. Burns' political thriller The Report, a dramatization of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee's 2014 probe into the CIA's use of torture in the wake of 9/11, is practically pornography for policy wonks. Starring a buttoned-down, tightly focused Adam Driver as Dan Jones, the researcher who compiled the report, and Annette Bening as his boss, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, this bracingly dry, talky but ultimately fascinating work offers excellent counterprogramming for anyone who felt Vice was too juvenile and lightweight, more about prosthetics then realpolitik.

Even better, although this deep dive into recent history clearly aligns with the condemnation of the use of torture that's predominantly (but crucially here, not completely) from the left, and a rebuke to the practices of the Bush administration, this is no warm-and-fuzzy romanticization of Barack Obama's tenure either, or any kind of West Wing with waterboarding. Without grandstanding, Burns' incisive script takes issue with the last administration's inclination to brush the report's horrifying findings under the carpet in the interest of being "post-partisan." Having renounced torture via executive order in Obama's first days in office, the administration at the time would have preferred, for political expediency, to simply move on.

As the end credits explain, no one was ever charged or censured, and many of those involved in the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs, more commonly known as torture) at CIA black sites around the world did not merely remain on staff; they were promoted. Indeed, the new director of the CIA is now Gina Haspel, a figure in the narrative who is mentioned but isn't impersonated by any actor. (Although the "composite" character of Bernadette, played by Maura Tierney as a dead-eyed apparatchik, could very well be seen as a cutout for Haspel.)

Please don't get your panties in a bunch if you feel that discussion of the last minutes of the film is any kind of spoiler. The whole story is pretty much yesterday's news. (It would feel more recent if only the Trump administration didn't generate such a tsunami of news every day.) Also, the fluid movement back and forth in time is entirely in keeping with the screenplay's own skittish temporality. Although graphics devices and chyrons are deployed to help navigate through the swirl of incident here, the plot starts with Driver's Jones meeting a prospective lawyer, Cyrus Clifford (Corey Stoll), sometime in 2012 and then filling him in on what he learned, necessitating a welter of flashbacks that stretch back to 2002.

Space here does not permit a comprehensive synopsis of the whole story, which would take as long to read as it does to watch the film itself. Suffice it to say the contents of the report are revealed in increments as Jones gleaned the information through his research. First came conventional interrogations of suspected terrorists right after 9/11, using Arab-speaking agents like Ali Soufan (Fajer Kaisi). But when those interrogations proved unsatisfactorily informative, CIA executives such as Tierney's Bernadette hired contractors James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), who offered more ostensibly efficacious techniques.

It gradually becomes clear that Mitchell and Jessen are little more than contemporary snake-oil salesmen, albeit ones who believe in their product, veterans with psychology degrees but not in possession of any kind of scientific evidence that these old methods with new-fangled names — waterboarding, stress positions, rectal hydration and so on — actually work. Burns generates some cruel black comedy out of the contrast between the crisp graphics of the PowerPoint display with its stick figures and the reality that unfolds in seedy dungeons with jaundice-yellow lighting, where speakers blast out music by Slayer and Marilyn Manson at top volume to deprive the naked shackled victims of sleep.

In fact, Ethan Tobman's nuanced production design creates unsettling parallels between these offshore hellholes and the windowless cells in Washington, where Jones toils away on his report, venturing out occasionally to meet with Feinstein and her dogged staffer Marcy Morris (Linda Powell) in similarly airless, atmosphere-free offices. At one point, Jones is seen having breakfast with a colleague and the camera follows his gaze out a window at a tree in full leaf, the first shocking blast of green in the entire film.

Burdened with such a surfeit of explication to download via dialogue, the cast is set a challenge to get it across with naturalism, laying it down like they know what they're talking about. Fortunately, all are up to the job, especially Driver, who has already proved a master at conveying nervy intelligence and barely suppressed rage. He keeps his powder dry and waits until nearly the end to let the indignation really rip with a performance that somewhat recalls Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight, another film that pays tribute to the dull, dogged, due process of truth telling.

If he's the star soloist in the ensemble, Bening's level, cool performance is the rhythm section, calm and steady but with a nifty little backbeat. Wisely, she and Burns have elected not to go for a full-bore, Vice-style impersonation of Feinstein. The hairstyles, pearl necklaces and rich colored office wear are all present and correct, but the real Feinstein has a much more monotone, cinema-unfriendly vocal delivery, and a beady-eyed stillness that doesn't betray what she's thinking so much.

Elsewhere, Ted Levine impresses greatly with his channeling of CIA director John Brennan, an imposing coil of riotous rage who is the closest thing the pic has to a villain — although some viewers now may look at him very differently with the knowledge that in 2018 he had his security clearance withdrawn for daring to speak truth to power by criticizing Trump's performance with Putin in Helsinki, an irony Burns is clearly well aware of but doesn't choose to rub in.

Burns is best known for his screenplays for The Informant!, Contagion and Side Effects, all directed by Steven Soderbergh, one of The Report's producers. Soderbergh's influence is palpable in the way Burns approaches the prismatic storytelling, editing, the use of color-coded lighting to create temporal cues and even in the way David Wingo's slippery, electronic-infused score sutures the material together. And yet this second directorial effort from Burns (his debut was 2006's Pu-239) has its own unique sensibility, an austerity and an intelligence that isn't interested in easy, partisan point scoring or pandering to viewers' prejudices. It's not an easy watch, but it is in its way a very vital and rewarding one.

Production companies: A Vice Studios, Unbranded Pictures presentation of a Jennifer Fox/Margin of Error production in association with Topic
Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Jon Hamm, Linda Powell, John Rothman, Joanne Tucker, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Ian Blackman, Dominic Fumusa, Fajer Kaisi, Zuhdi Boueri, Douglas Hodge, T. Ryder Smith, Carlos Gomez, Ted Levine, Tim Blake Nelson, Ratnesh Dubey, Scott Shepherd, Caroline Krass, Matthew Rhys, Kate Beahan, James Hindman

Director-screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns
Producers: Steven Soderbergh, Jennifer Fox, Scott Z. Burns, Kerry Orent, Michael Sugar, Danny Gabai, Eddy Moretti
Executive producers: Nancy Dubuc, Shane Smith, Natalie Farrey, Lila Yacoub, Michael DiVerdi, Vincent Landay, TJ Rinomato
Co-producer: Jennifer Semler
Director of photography: Eigil Bryld
Production designer: Ethan Tobman
Costume designer: Susan Lyall
Editor: Greg O'Bryant
Music: David Wingo
Music supervisors: Adam Schneider, Ricki Askin
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Sales: Vice Studios

118 minutes