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‘The Report’ Review: A Sharp Political Thriller That Sticks to the Facts [Sundance]

Imagine a prescient political thriller not just made for liberals—one that wants to be understood and taken seriously by all parties, like a politically sober ‘The Post.’
The Report
By  · Published on January 28th, 2019

The Report is a thrilling and intentionally infuriating political procedural that chronicles the largest investigation every conducted by the U.S. Senate. It is a long, grueling trip through the invisible yellow tape set up inside Washington’s most important institutions—a messy web of deceit and discord between the White House Administration, Department of Justice, CIA, and Congress. And when we finally get through certain sections of yellow tape, there is a second, more harrowing round of blockage headed by more powerful figures, followed by red tape that might as well be made of steel.

Writer and sophomore director Scott Z. Burns (writer of Side Effects, Contagion) capitalizes on a tight screenplay that is direct, void of distraction, clear, and succinct. It’s the story of the Daniel Jones-led investigation into the deeply unethical “enhanced interrogation techniques” implemented by the CIA post-9/11 that both birthed and thrived out of misinformation and lies provided by the CIA to all governing parties (except for those in on it). It is a perfectly concise 110-minute summary of Jones’s efforts, which yielded nearly 7,000 pages of research over six years (2008-2014), and all the conversations behind closed doors that took place during its composition.

It’s quick-witted and hot-tempered like great political thrillers often are and it never gets lost in melodrama. Adam Driver (as Jones) is composed, determined, and full of righteous anger, but in a professionally believable way. The same can be said for Annette Bening as a collected, veteran senator in Dianne Feinstein, the vice chair of the Intelligence Committee and commissioner of Jones’s investigation. Supporting roles from Jennifer Morrison, Maura Tierney, Ted Levine, Corey Stoll, Jon Hamm, Tim Blake Nelson, and Michael C. Hall make certain that every scene is stuffed to the brim with no bullshit, in your face Acting.

There’s little to feature in plot points. The film churns on complex political conversations between a myriad of folks that I could not do justice in summary. I imagine writing a screenplay like this is similar to translating an academic work from one language to another. The bureaucratic language of the investigation and resulting report is not accessible to your average audience, but Burns is a tremendous interpreter. Everything happens so fast, but Burns never leaves us in the dust or speaks too high above our heads. Nothing less is expected from Steven Soderbergh’s go-to screenwriter of the past decade.

It’s also clear that Soderbergh’s directorial brilliance has rubbed off on Burns. He is more than a great screenwriter, and while Soderbergh’s influence is all over Burns’ direction, it’s never too much. The direction never feels derivative or stale or oversaturated. It feels natural and original while wearing a Soderberghian stamp of approval. He is never “stealing” from his influence. He is simply one of Soderbergh’s descendants (hopefully one of his prodigies).

To give you a good idea of the significance of Jones’s report as displayed in the movie, it is compared to The Bible twice. Firstly, Jones asks White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Hamm) point blank if he had read it, to which McDonough says, “It’s 7,000 pages, Dan. The Bible tells the story of all human history in less pages.” Secondly, the CIA returns the report with their suggested redactions, which turn out to be all names and possible leads to a guilty party, to which Jones asks, “What if you were reading The Bible and “Blank” turned water into wine and “Blank” rose from the dead?”

While the comparisons are played comedically, they deliver a bit of starkness in their incisive commentary on the significance of religious myth vs. the exposure of corruption (though, of course, religion is not that simple), and in how the former can thwart the latter in a fit of bad conscience that adds up to mob mentality loyalty. In broader terms, that is The Report’s report. The very institutions that exist to uphold one another in an ethical system of checks and balances are not concerned with ethics or inalienable rights or justice. They are concerned with keeping their executives and programs free from criticism. They are concerned with themselves, their legacies, their wealth, their connections.

Sure, Daniel Jones’s torture report was eventually published (though not available to the public until 2028), but he was almost imprisoned and nearly pulled off a miracle to get it done. He fought the most powerful government institutions in the world from the inside. He was spied on by the CIA, bullied by the state’s most powerful legal teams, damned by the Republican party, and censored even when given his chance. He made his name by making enemies on all sides of government because he had to expose them to make his case. But it didn’t matter. As the film informs us, those who approved of these torture methods, lied about their effectiveness, and signed off on the lies told about them were not fired or indicted after Jones’s report. Many have been promoted. In this, Burns makes it very obvious that this is not a partisan issue.

The choice to take an approach void of partisanship is one of the film’s more glowing aspects. Think: The Post meets broad political sobriety and general clarity of mind. Sure, the Republicans are the “enemy” at times, but the film isn’t concerned with that. It’s concerned with facts, ethics, justice, all of which come before partisan devotion. To get wrapped up in what little partisanship exists in the film would be to totally disregard the thesis of the film, which is that we all lose when our most powerful institutions are not held to ethical standards through a process of accountability.

Jones was a democrat, but he was not interested in bringing down any one political party. At times, his major roadblock was Obama, who was more concerned with getting re-elected when Jones needs him most. At times, Bush is revealed to be innocent, Jones proving that Bush was lied to about what was going on in the CIA’s interrogation efforts. The emotional climax of the film hinges on a John McCain speech about the despicable and irrefutably unethical interrogation practices that Jones uncovered. It concludes with a disquieting quote from George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address about the danger of partisan politics that we now drown in.

The film plays with an unfortunate depth of relatability in light of the painfully slow burn that is the Mueller investigation, one which seems too hindered by the same governing forces that held Jones back to ever bring the orange one down before his sick loyalty-first administration comes to its four-year fruition. Watching The Report beckons the question “How long?” How long will this institutional level of corruption thrive? How long will we live in an America where Jones’s findings (or tr*mp’s jingoistic policies) are the norm?

Idealistically, if films like The Report can reach a wider audience than the 500-page summary of the torture report available to the public, perhaps things will start to change for the better. Realistically, there’s little hope for an end to this mass corruption in the foreseeable future. The Report is not the first of its kind, and we are arguably steeped in the American government’s darkest hour, in which confirmed rapists sit atop the Supreme Court, teenage antagonists are publicly defended by the president in their sickening racist and supremacist actions, and bigotry is making a comeback on a national scale. So, it’s safe to assume that The Report will not save anyone or anything, but it’s important. These stories must be told. They can no longer remain buried. They must be brought to the light of the public eye.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.