There’s an argument today that everything is hyper-politicized, from our news to our movies to the signs lining the freeway during our daily commute. It’s a hard thing to escape and being exposed constantly to it can rightfully feel exhausting. There’s also an argument to be made that the world has always been hyper-politicized and that we’ve rather lacked the resources to realize how much political content was being put out into the world. With the advent of social media which connects us so much more with not only each other but with the world around us, our eyes are more open to political conflict and social injustices in our own society. With this sometimes overwhelming amount of information, it’s easy for bullshit to come to the forefront while important topics might slip through the cracks for not being “sexy” enough. Such is the case of The Report, which, even in its own right, isn’t the sexiest movie out there, not compared to other awards contenders à la Jojo Rabbit or Parasite. Dealing with the development and release of the 2012 report regarding the use of torture against suspected enemies of the state following 9/11, it’s a film that’s as grim as it sounds, which already doesn’t bode well for its comment on the story’s quiet passage through American news outlets.
Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young Senate staffer working under the tutelage of California Senior Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), is tasked with leading an extensive, bipartisan investigation into the post-9/11 torture tactics enforced by the CIA during interrogations of possibly connected officials of Al-Qaeda. During this time, Jones begins to uncover secrets darker and more horrifying than he could’ve imagined, leading him through a dark hole of secret sources, partisan political attacks, and bureaucratic power moves spanning multiple presidential administrations.
Written by veteran screenwriter and first-time director Scott Z. Burns, The Report has all the makings of a bombshell political drama with all the pizzazz and flash of an episode of JAG playing in the background at your grandfather’s house. It’s a competently written, directed, and acted film all-around. It just lacks the visceral and unique punch needed to make a film like this stand out from the sea of political dramas being made in this day and age. For being a film so willing to comment on the nature of how information is passed to the American people with clear intent on how it wishes to be received, The Report doesn’t do quite enough to uphold its own message to make it as compelling or powerful as it wants to be.
Driver, coming hot off his buzz for Marriage Story, does a fine job as Jones in the film. Driver is simply being Driver in a broad sense. There’s an energy about him as an actor that, even in his absolute worst roles (of which this is not one of them), he brings a masculine secureness that makes whatever work he’s in feel more stable underneath his feet. While Jones is far from the most charismatic figure (a fact duly noted in the film), Driver knows how to dig deep within the character to bring out the passion and drive that fuels him where his personality might lack. Also quite good in the film is Bening as Elizabeth Warren as Dianne Feinstein. Of course, Bening is always great in her films, but I definitely picked up more Warren mannerisms than Feinstein. Bening’s first Oscar might be in tow for the inevitable future biopic made on Warren. This trial run might not land her the coveted golden statue come February, but, despite being a bit campy (which only seeks to make the performance more enjoyable amongst the bleak narrative content), what is here is a performance that proves why Bening is considered one of the great underrated artists of her generation. It’s a composed, likable, yet understandably frantic performance that gives Bening more to do than most roles of this size give her.
One could argue that The Report is a weird diet fusion of All the President’s Men and Spotlight, to which one would be correct, but at least it isn’t Zero Dark Thirty, a fact that it touts explicitly during one amusing scene regarding the film’s release. This is not a film that shies away from the nasty elements of its story, nor is it a film that hesitates in showing you, in full glory, the horrors and atrocities that an American government agency was allowed to commit to many unimpeachable suspects during a time of high alert. Whether you feel these actions were justified or not is up to you to decide, but what isn’t is being forced to watch brutal scenes of torture unfold on screen. Unlike something like Zero Dark Thirty, this is a film where it doesn’t feel unnecessary or exploitative but is woven into the fabric of the story around it. It’s not fun, but its portrayal of these events is one of the stronger elements of The Report.
Its weaknesses start to come in when you begin to realize after the first act that The Report doesn’t really have anything up its sleeve. It lays everything out on the table so early on in the film that it leaves the story with nowhere particularly consequential or compelling left to go. It’s a film that goes from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds but decelerates to the 35 mph speed limit for the rest of its drive. It makes a 119-minute film feel like its straddling the three-hour mark by the end of its time, and it doesn’t make the case for holding out for a finale that’s underwhelming at best.
If anything, The Report feels like a killer HBO mini-series compressed into a two-hour film, one that can’t make its mind up whether to take the express route in telling the story of how the torture report came to be, or whether to take its time hashing out the details and the devil within them. I think the case can be made for either one of these approaches, but knowing the strength of Burns as a writer, The Report feels a smidge undercooked of its full potential.
The Report also plays it unflinchingly straight in its storytelling. While not every film has to be like The Big Short or Vice in its quirky approach to dense material, strides must be taken in making the drier material that made the initial revelation of this report slip through the cracks feel more fluid and alive. The Report simply lays it on thick, and while it is very competent in the facts it presents and how it’s told succinctly (given that the actual report is over 6,700 pages; its summary report over 500 pages), it doesn’t display much ingenuity in the way the story is presented.
The Report, as a film, is fine. It’s neither great, nor awful, and it does a solid job in telling a story that people might not have been aware of to its full extent. The Report just struggles to keep its head above water when looking to stay compelling past its riveting, gut-wrenching first act. It goes hard directly out of the gate but fails to sustain that level of savagery throughout the film’s runtime. Regardless, Driver and Bening are excellent amongst an already impressive cast, Burns does an admirable job making a sleek-looking film, and I’m sure it’s a film my mother will love, but it’s just not the bombshell that it so desperately wants to be, nor the bombshell that we need it to be.
Footnote: Like The Aeronauts, this is a film Amazon is giving a very limited theatrical release to before relegating it to its Prime Video streaming service. I am not as angry about this going to streaming, as it’s a far more intimate and dialogue-heavy film that can work just as well at home than it can in theaters. See it however you like, it truly doesn’t matter here.
In theaters November 15th, 2019.
Available on Prime Video November 29th, 2019.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.