When it comes to politics, people have very short memories. We like to look at crises like Donald Trump like they’re unprecedented problems, ignoring the fact that western politics have been disastrous for years on end. Thank goodness, then, for films like The Report which, similarly to last year’s Vice, reminds us of exactly how vile American institutions were even when things were more ‘normal’. Taking aim at the inhumanity of Cheney, the ignorance of Bush, and the cowardice of Obama, Scott Z Burns’s excellent political thriller never tries to be ‘timely’ in its indictment of the CIA’s embrace of torture, and is all the more effective for it.
Jumping back and forth between Daniel J Jones’s (Adam Driver) arduous task of researching and writing the Torture Report and the torture itself in the wake of 9/11, Burns’s script examines the dark, angry heart of the CIA. Jones swiftly discovers that, aside from the obvious moral and legal wrongs committed by the agency, everyone involved in ‘enhanced interrogation’ knew it was ineffective. Though he doesn’t get too bogged down in pop psychology, Burns makes a fascinating attempt to diagnose exactly why such a useless, hideous system was kept in place for so long.
His conclusions are as convincing as they are bleak; constricted by fear after the Twin Towers attack, the CIA tried to smother their own feelings of impotence with sheer sadism, occupying their minds with how to hurt their enemies rather than usefully fixing any of their own faults. It makes for rivetingly enraging viewing, and Burns revels in the ways language is used to dehumanise, sterilise, and justify atrocities. The Washington DC he creates is packed with villains and their enablers, all of whom are unable to comprehend their own moral failings, and lash out at anyone able to expose them.
Daniel is stymied at every turn by bureaucracy and even outright aggression, the CIA constantly changing and breaking the rules as he investigates them. Driver does very well at displaying Daniel’s stoic fury, often on the verge of exploding with righteous frustration. The whole film is perfectly cast, from Jon Hamm as the handsome but ineffective Obama White House spokesman to Douglas Hodge as the slimy inventor of the torture tactics used under Bush. Every choice of actor lets us know exactly who their character is before they even finish their first line. It’s a remarkable efficiency of storytelling that is occasionally lacking elsewhere in the film – it runs a little too long with some side characters slowing things down noticeably.
Performances are rock solid across the board, and though Annette Bening initially feels underserved in the role of report overseer Senator Dianne Feinstein, later frustrations give her a dignified anger that Bening makes hugely compelling. Equally sturdy is Burns’s direction, sweatily immersive during the authorisation and execution of the tortures, cleaner and more clinical during Daniel’s investigation. Impressively, in amongst the horror, The Report also finds time to be funny, especially when it calls out torture-glorifying films and shows like Zero Dark Thirty and 24.
‘Journalistic and/or political thriller’ is often a genre that ends up too dry to be really entertaining, but The Report avoids these pitfalls with a punchy script and great acting, making for a film that matches its informative insight with its watchability. Cinematic indictments of American politics are hardly a rarity in the current climate, but ones with this much wit and courage in their convictions are. The Report pulls no punches and condemns all sides of the political aisle, but finds a way to make this desperation thrilling instead of exhausting, catching brief glimmers of hope in genuine, driven idealists.