The Report

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Report
"The problem with The Report is that despite this ongoing relevance, its powerful subject matter, the capable cast and an impressive script, it never builds up the impetus it ought to have." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

How does one take on an emotive subject like torture in a film? There are two schools of thought on this. One involves bludgeoning viewers with the full horror of it, whether the director wishes them to reject it as a result or to decide that it's necessary to prevent something worse. The other involves showing only what is necessary to communicate what's going on and giving viewers plenty of space to contemplate its impact. The former strategy usually focuses heavily on the victim, whether as hero or villain; the latter focuses on observers, including the viewers themselves.

The Report is a product of the latter school. It gives us a taste of the violence it's concerned with early on but spends most of its time looking at it from a distance through the eyes of a team of investigators charged with assembling a report on the CIA's post-9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program. Heading this up is senatorial assistant Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), one of those people who goes into politics for all the right reasons and takes a surprisingly long time to wake up to how it works. Driver, who has to be the most successful Star Wars actor to date when it comes to fending off typecasting from the get-go, approaches the role in a subdued yet emotionally engaging way perfectly suited to the tradition of US investigative films like All The President's Men, Silkwood, Spotlight and The Post. He gets sterling support from Annette Bening as Senator Dianne Feinstein and Ted Levine as former CIA director John Brennan, and there's good ensemble work from the actors portraying his team members, who gradually break under the pressure whilst he finds his anger growing.

Copy picture

Whether one calls it torture or restricts oneself to the CIA's own term, 'enhanced interrogation', there's no doubt about the ugliness of the events the investigation dealt with. Most of what writer/director Scott Z Burns dramatises here is a matter of public record. What the film does is to make it much more visible to sections of the public that might otherwise overlook it, to remind people why it matters, and to create a means of reckoning with it rather than simply feeling overwhelmed. It also reflects on larger issues - this is, after all, hardly the first time that medical expertise has been used to disturbing effect to inform interrogation techniques, nor the first time that research has demonstrated that torture doesn't work (an observation noted by Heinrich Kramer as early as the 15th Century). Ignorance feeds the repetition of such failings.

The problem with The Report is that despite this ongoing relevance, its powerful subject matter, the capable cast and an impressive script, it never builds up the impetus it ought to have. Burns is much more capable at the keyboard than he is behind the camera and it's in precisely the kind of mid-sized, bland interior spaces where most of this film is set that a bit of directorial flair is needed most. What we get is more like a stage play without the tension that a live audience brings, and for all the praise Driver has received as a stage actor, he can't save it from that.

The upshot is that although there's a good deal to admire here, and certainly a lot of material deserving of attention, the film often drags or slackens its grip just when the tension should be at its greatest. It's still a good film. It should have been more than just good. See it, but don't expect too much.

Reviewed on: 05 Jan 2020
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The story of Daniel Jones, lead investigator for the US Senate’s sweeping study into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, which was found to be brutal, immoral and ineffective. With the truth at stake, Jones battled tirelessly to make public what many in power sought to keep hidden.


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