For nearly twenty years, the United States has found itself in conflict with an entire religion and subsection of the world. The Sysiphus-like task that the US embarked upon after the events of 9/11 has stretched across the globe. It’s also hard to dispute that some American follies in the Middle East have not exacerbated many of the issues at play. The Report attempts to reveal the truths about these problematic choices we made as government, which far extended past the Bush-era White House. As a piece of political storytelling, the new film from Scott Z. Burns tries to play tell the story from a non-partisan perspective. Its protagonist is a man seeking the truth. Yet on the way, some of these truths become hard to swallow, forcing us to look internally as a nation and culture.
The Report follows Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), a career bureaucrat who wishes to serve his country as an anti-terrorism expert. He becomes a Senate Staffer under the direction of Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Benning) and finds his way into writing reports on the Bush White House. In a post-9/11 America, he’s asked to investigate the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation programs, which handled the torture of enemy combatants. As Jones begins to run into resistance from those outside and within the Democratic party, it becomes questionable if his report will ever see the light of day.
Burns puts his cards on the table early, loading the dialogue with detailed and gruesome information from the program. The stories that find their way into the discourse are tough to hear, but even tougher to watch. As Jones dives deeper into the rabbit hole, it seems like the stories grow even more upsetting. Juxtaposing Jones’ reading of the documents with flashbacks to the conversations and actions that came to define the program, Burns paints an exact picture about a sin of American policy.
Yet Burns also gets real credit for humanizing people behind those decisions. More importantly, he paints the picture of terror and frustration that reaks through the government at the time. For every self-important idiot who comes to create these disgusting programs, you see the very real person who believed they were keeping the United States safe. These were not acts perpetrated by evil people, but the acts themselves are unquestionably so.
Visually, Burns allows the dark hallways of government buildings to feel intimidating and lonely. As Driver’s character moves through the story, it’s clear that the power structures of Washington are against him. Many of the scenes feel reminiscent of Traffic or Spotlight, and blending the two vibes makes this one far from boring. Burns learned a lot from working with Steven Soderberg, and at times it can be hard to ignore the influence of the famed indie director (who serves as a producer on the film).
For Driver, this performance proves his movie star chops as he carries the picture. Driver finds ways to imbue emotion and frustration into frankly dry material, and in lesser hands, the audience would check out quickly. Yet with Driver at the helm, you want to eat the vegetables of American foreign policy, and understand the repercussions. Driver’s ability to hold his composure or wordlessly eviscerate an intelligent foe with a mere glance makes use of his extraordinary talent. It’s subtle acting at its finest, and if you have any doubt about Driver as a star, he channels the stillness of Hoffman and Keaton in the best of ways.
The ensemble cast brings lots of great performances into the fold, but everyone takes a backseat to Driver. Benning’s Feinstein comes across as a woman in control, playing the editor role to perfection for Driver’s emotional journey. As she pushes or pulls at the right moments, she can easily be compared to a Ben Bradlee-type, which serves its purpose well in the context of the narrative.
Jon Hamm and Ted Levine offer up interesting contrasts to Driver, especially because of who they work for. The monologues they deliver speak most to today’s political climate, but ultimately misunderstand what the future will hold for the system. Michael C. Hall and Maura Tierney also get limited screentime, but this gives background characters the ability to pop.
For Burns, The Report shows tremendous growth and talent that could be brought out with the right project. He harnasses the cast well, and Driver’s standout performance makes this an interesting watch. However, the subject matter will undeniably alienate some members of the audience. Weirdly, being apolitical has become political in today’s climate, but the search for truth feels more essential than ever. The Report surely succeeds on those grounds and earns must-watch status for political junkies.
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