By Benjamin Akpan
Since the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 2001, America’s history has been irreversibly split in two: pre-9/11 and post-9/11. Despite constant coverage worldwide, much of 9/11 is clouded by perplexing misinformation and distortion of truth. Yet, this event and its aftermath has been the basis for many intense, expository Hollywood narratives that trail the excruciating journey to solving the crime, and lay bare the iniquities of the U.S. government in the entire ordeal.
And as if we needed yet another reason to believe that the U.S. government sort of sucks, Scott Z. Burns’ latest film The Report serves as a comforting reminder that in the right hands, a political thriller can be done well. But, The Report’s potential is encumbered by Burns’ direction, which is so hell-bent on stuffing his audience with information, the film begins to feel like a dramatized reenactment of a documentary. It joins the recent slew of fact-based dramas seeking to uncover the atrocities of people in positions of power, in the vein of 2015’s Oscar-winning biographical Spotlight, and last year’s Vice.
Burns drops all the pandering in Vice, while retaining all its tension in his telling of the intense account of Daniel J. Jones (the sensational Adam Driver), the senate staffer tasked with leading an investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 use of torture under the Detention and Interrogation Program. Here’s the big takeaway: The U.S. government tortured people, knowing fully well that it wasn’t working, but continued to do it to maintain credibility. All the ill-treatment that 9/11 suspects were subjected to – the film stipulates – failed to produce any information vital in solving the crime. All the ill-treatment was also methodically covered up.
The Report chronicles Jones’ grueling investigation and the obstacles he faced over the course of an entire decade. Burns’ film is your classic procedural, packing the content of a lengthy Wikipedia page – references and all – into an entire two hours; and even then it doesn’t feel like enough time to unpack the details of the 6,700-page report. It’s a whole lot of information, but not enough form; all tell, no show. There’s a dullness in Burns’ direction, and a lack of flow in its rhythm. It’s exhausting to watch a 120 minutes of characters spewing facts at the audience constantly with no letup – or at least it should be.
© Youtube | Rapid Trailer
But the cast of The Report are superb in every sense of the word. As Jones, Adam Driver is decisive and angry all the way through, completely getting lost in the role. He bears all the emotion with a certain frustration that is transferred to the audience once the film gets going, which isn’t too long after it initially begins. Even when the plot begins to feel tedious, he injects a measure of fervor that jolts the film back into captivation. His performance here is no match for his work in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, but it is a testament to his skill that he is able to handle such emotional frigidity here, while bleeding with vulnerability in the latter. And Annette Bening is unsurprisingly potent in portraying Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairperson of the Select Committee on Intelligence at the time Jones was carrying out his investigation.
Though Burns’ direction is stiff, one can’t help but notice the solidity of his script, which compacts and condenses Daniel Jones’ report into an easily digestible feature. It’s well structured to illicit a strong exasperation from its viewers that many other films of this genre fail to achieve. Save for the fact that its subject matter is already angering enough, Burns pens a script that never loses its focus, and – as a result – never loses its audience.
Even though it suffers from being over-informative, The Report is essential viewing nonetheless: it exposes the heinous acts of a government so intent on preventing a repetition of a horrifying event, that they’re willing to warp humanity in their favour. It calls into question the procedures that serve as the cornerstone of American policy. In a time when pretty much all of history is being taught by cinema, this searing thriller is a revelation of one of the most important, and brutal documents ever released.
*Editor’s Note: The Report internationally premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival ’19 as part of Special Presentations.