Investigative journalism films directly appeal to me, mostly because I love movies about everyday people being good at what they do for a living – the first horse training sequence in The Rider brought me to tears, for instance. I was excited for The Report, because it bears most of the genre’s conventions, but also the talent involved is impressive: it was written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, produced by Steven Soderbergh, and stars a brigade of talented actors including Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew Rhys, and Maura Tierney. However, despite admirable efforts to keep the grim and tedious material engaging, The Report is a mostly forgettable endeavor that offers very little new information to those that will likely seek it out.
The film mostly centers around Daniel J. Jones, a Senate staffer tasked with leading an investigation into the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” that grew to prominence after 9/11. The narrative shifts between Jones and his team’s efforts to gather intelligence and scenes at detention facilities where detainees were systematically tortured. The film’s depiction of torture is disturbing and difficult to watch, putting the audience directly in the ethically ambiguous position of those working at the facility who were pushed aside and forced to oversee this horrific behavior, grappling with their complicit involvement when their concerns are ignored. The film is at its most powerful, confrontational, and affecting in these scenes, but comparisons to Zero Dark Thirty are inevitable, especially when The Report directly references it later on, and though I was less enamored by Zero Dark Thirty than most, The Report suffers by comparison.
The bulk of The Report’s narrative more closely resembles Spotlight, with large portions centered around Daniel J. Jones and his team’s labored attempts to uncover documents and track leads, ultimately seeking justice in the face of opposition from the CIA and the White House. This is where the film really drops the ball. What makes films like Spotlight and All the President’s Men so compelling are the rich, detailed characterizations of their characters. The Report’s script features mostly cardboard characters who are defined solely by their drive for justice (or conversely their absence of empathy), especially in the back-end where the film descends into a series of big impassioned speeches with big impassioned speech music underscoring the explicitly stated message. Driver and Bening elevate the material, but it’s an unfortunate waste of a strong supporting cast.
The film isn’t a total misfire, though. Until the final stretch, where it teeters into patronizing, there’s no sense of the material being dumbed down for a broader audience. Knowing Burns’ track record, I wasn’t necessarily fearful of an outright atrocious scene like Vice’s torture-as-restaurant-menu-items sequence, but films with daunting and complicated content tend to be oversimplified and consolidated for more enjoyable consumption, and The Report thankfully doesn’t go that direction. Needless exposition often bugs me – I’d gladly take a film where the details are completely lost on me over one that stops to explain every step in painstaking detail – and The Report has plenty of exposition but delivers it in an organic way that respects the audience’s intelligence.
Scott Z. Burns is most well-known for writing a handful of Steven Soderbergh’s films, including The Informant!, Contagion, and most recently The Laundromat. The Report is his first time directing his own material in over a decade and even if the film isn’t particularly distinct, he displays a promising talent, using clean, crisp camerawork to draw the eye, and interesting editing techniques to keep the film engaging. He also has an obvious talent for directing actors, getting solid performances out of his cast of heavy-hitters, even with relatively flat characters.
I often ask myself with films that dramatize real life events, “would I rather watch a documentary on the subject?” and in the case of The Report, the answer is unfortunately “yes.” Even more telling, there have already been a number of very strong documentaries about this exact subject, like Taxi to the Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure, which were both released over 10 years ago. That’s possibly the most critical critique I can levy against The Report: it feels like a film that’s already been made a decade ago.
C+ Middleburg Review 2019 adam driver annette bening B+ contagion jon hamm matthew rhys maura tierney michael c. hall middleburg film festival 2019 scott z. burns spotlight standard operating procedure steven soderbergh taxi to the dark side the informant the laundromat the report the rider tim blake nelson vice zero dark thirty