The Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program is a more than 6,700-page document detailing the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainees during the aftermath of 9/11. Given the day-to-day affronts and insanity of the current executive branch, I suppose it’s a tough time to try and explain to those who weren’t there or don’t remember exactly how badly the country lost its mind and abandoned our moral compass during the Dubya administration. With his image rehabbed now as a cuddly amateur painter who can’t put on a poncho, sharing candy with Michelle Obama and going to ballgames with Ellen, it’s important to be reminded that George W. Bush presided over the kidnapping and torture of suspected terrorists in clear violation of international law, the Geneva Convention and pretty much every ideal America is supposed to stand for. Of course, most of the country didn’t care even then, so I doubt anyone is about to get too worked up about it now.
“The Report,” a bristling docudrama that marks the feature directorial debut of screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, seethes with such impotent outrage. It stars Adam Driver as Dan Jones, the Senate staffer who spent five years in a barren basement office, poring over cables, emails and massive document dumps assembling a definitive record of chronic human rights abuses that yielded no actionable intelligence. The meticulously researched film depicts the CIA as being sold a bill of goods by a couple of private contractor hucksters peddling junk psychiatry to the tune of 80 million taxpayer dollars, and however appalling the content of Jones’ report, the real meat of the movie is the forehead-smacking frustrations he met while trying to make this information public.
A frequent collaborator with director Steven Soderbergh on pictures like “Contagion,” “The Informant!” and “Side Effects” (out of kindness let’s not mention last month’s “The Laundromat”), Burns is a writer fascinated by complex processes and wonky policy details. He’s a natural at navigating D.C.’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, punctuating the minutiae with bold-type symbolic signifiers from the opening moments, as when Driver misplaces a souvenir Capitol Hill snowglobe after blowing a job interview with Jon Hamm’s entertainingly slick National Security honcho Denis McDonough.
Jones instead goes to work for Annette Bening’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who serves as the gruff, Ben Bradlee-esque boss to Driver’s crusading investigator as Burns borrows the framework of “All the President’s Men.” (If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best.) This is one of those movies where a lot of terrific character actors wear lanyards and stride purposefully down hallways speaking to one another in hushed tones or make furtive eye contact during conference calls. I love this kind of stuff, and Burns keeps the pace percolating with the jittery handheld energy and slinky synthesizer sounds associated with Soderbergh, if not his mentor’s gift for indelible images.
“The Report” most infuriatingly demonstrates the limitations of centrism, as Feinstein and Jones are met with one roadblock after another from the Obama administration, swept into office on a promise of post-partisanship and worried that an investigation of the previous regime’s war crimes could seriously derail their agenda. “Forward” was indeed a campaign motto, and more than one character points out that the CIA got the president re-elected when SEAL Team Six killed Osama Bin Laden. Hamm plays some amusingly exasperated notes here, baffled by Jones’ bulldog tenacity and wondering why we can’t all just move on from such unpleasantness.
The movie’s a marvelous showcase for Adam Driver, who quite quickly has become one of our most fascinating actors. Gangly and comprised almost entirely of right angles, Driver doesn’t look like a traditional leading man yet has a captivating screen presence, especially in a highly internalized role like this one, where he spends most of his screen time either reading or clenched in righteous indignation. Also enjoyable are juicy bit roles for Ted Levine as scuzzy CIA Director John Brennan, a smooth Corey Stoll as an unaffordable attorney and — in the film’s cleverest bit of meta-casting — Matthew Rhys, who played Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg in Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” and pops up here as a New York Times reporter trying to talk Jones into slipping him the classified document.
During one scene, Burns takes a cheap shot at Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film less journalistically accurate though far more troubling and artful than this one, that was pulverized in the press for publicity purposes by a lot of people who hadn’t bothered to actually watch it. This, and the atonally triumphalist ending of “The Report,” set me off wondering a bit afterward about how useful a picture like this really is, however informative and engaging. We’re, I guess, supposed to cheer as the music swells and Driver gets a hero’s walk beneath the shadows of D.C.’s hallowed monuments while John McCain decries the use of torture on the Senate floor. But I couldn’t help thinking about the final shot of Bigelow’s picture instead, and how maybe the only appropriate ending for this chapter in history is her silent scream.