TIFF REVIEW – ‘The Report’ is a scathing indictment of a shameful moment in American history

Since that fateful September day in 2001, American cinema has offered numerous tales from the months and years following the events of 9/11. Just last year, Adam McKay delivered a divisive portrait of the mastermind of the post-9/11 war effort in Vice. With a narrative flirting on humanising someone many consider a war criminal, it left some with a sour taste in their mouths. How refreshing to have something like The Report come along at just the right time to provide the perfect sobering antidote.

A slow-moving yet utterly scathing indictment of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed on “suspected” Al Qaida detainees, The Report shines a damning light on tactics eventually deemed to be torture. But, far more importantly, the film offers a meticulous and detailed look at the exhaustive process undertaken to rightly bring this shameful moment in America’s history to the public’s attention.

When the World Trade Center came down on 9/11, many young Americans patriotically enlisted to serve in the military the very next day. College student Dan Jones (a phenomenal Adam Driver) experienced a similar patriotic epiphany, immediately switching his major, determined to make his difference on the country by serving in the government.

After taking the advice of senior foreign policy adviser (and future White House Chief of Staff under President Obama) Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm) to begin his career in a counter-terrorism agency, Jones spends the next four years at the FBI before joining the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2009.

Under the instruction of Senator Dianne Feinstein (the ever-reliable Annette Bening), Jones is tasked with leading an exhaustive investigation into the CIA’s shadowy post-9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program. But Jones quickly realises the Agency have been illegally destroying video and audio evidence of the brutal interrogations of 119 key Middle Eastern detainees.

Assembling a team to help sift through over six million (yes, six million) pages of documents, a relentless Jones becomes steadfastly determined to ascertain exactly what went down. What follows is a five-year investigation that will ultimately uncover the shocking torture tactics employed over numerous years and the lengths undertaken to bury the information from both the wider government and the American people.

If Spotlight highlighted the gargantuan task of exposing a major piece of investigative journalism, The Report is equally effective at capturing the painstaking and lengthy process required to conduct a government investigation where the odds are stacked against you. It’s painfully clear those involved in the morally corrupt torture tactics wanted their actions buried, making it that much more impressive Jones was able to complete his seemingly impossible task.

It’s that very task where writer/director Scott Z. Burns wisely focuses almost the entirety of his narrative, avoiding the need for tired clichés exploring events and individuals outside the investigation. We don’t see the effect his consuming work is having on the private life of Jones because, quite frankly, he doesn’t have a private life. For the better part of almost six years, his singular obsessive focus was the creation of the torture report. As such, Burns has crafted his film in much the same way.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but The Report condenses an extensive amount of information into just two hours, meaning you really have to give this film your undivided attention to keep up. For political history nuts like myself, there is a veritable feast of details packed into Burns’ tight screenplay that makes for truly gripping viewing. Pulling few punches, Burns grabs your attention after a somewhat shaky start and barely lets go until the film’s conclusion.

To supplement the power of his narrative, Jones occasionally injects flashback sequences featuring unflinching and horrifying recreations of the “interrogation techniques” employed by the CIA, under the misguided conviction this kind of torture would lead to credible intelligence. From waterboarding to sleep deprivation and all sorts of other unimaginable punishments, this kind of treatment makes for truly uncomfortable viewing, and rightly so. Burns is keenly interested in exposing how disgraceful and consequently pointless this practice ultimately proved.

Back in 2012, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty offered a similar look at these very interrogation tactics, but with one clear difference; Bigelow’s film inherently implied the practice worked, with valuable information elicited from the detainees ultimately leading to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Many felt the film took a bizarre pro-torture stance, presenting the practice as doing “what needs to be done” to protect America.

But in The Report, we acutely see how the detainees rarely said anything of note or even anything truthful, sticking far closer to the truth found in Jones’ eventual report than the muddled nonsense presented in Bigelow’s work. Not only did the interrogation techniques violate the Geneva Convention, they ultimately proved to be a powerful recruitment tool for radical terrorist groups to exploit.

Continuing his recent run of terrific performances, Driver once again proves why he’s one of the finest actors working today. In the first of three films to be released in the latter stages of 2019 starring the actor, Driver is set to have quite the year. While his powerful work in Marriage Story is likely the one to deservedly reap attention this awards season, his work here is no less impressive.

It’s not a particularly flashy role. Just a quiet, simple man, expertly performing his job with the unrelenting perseverance required of such a monumental task. In a mostly restrained performance, Driver handles the film’s extensive, rapid-fire dialogue with aplomb, somehow making such complex information entirely palatable and engaging. But it’s in the film’s closing stages where Jones finally lets his burgeoning anger out in a moment that’s pure Driver brilliance.

Many are hoping The Report may be Bening’s ticket to a long-overdue Academy Award. She’ll undoubtedly be in the conversation for the Supporting Actress race with a compelling performance as Senator Feinstein that never falls into farcical impersonation. While the hairstyle and attire are pitch-perfect, Bening offers a far less monotone cadence than her real-life counterpart, delivering a take on the Senator that’s far more accessible and charming.

Feinstein has the unfortunate task of navigating the difficult relationship between her office and the scrupulous government bodies wanting to shut her investigation down, gifting Bening the chance to highlight just how exhausting and complicated American politics often is. It’s Feinstein’s calmness in the face of crippling adversity that helps Jones succeed, offering an audience an insight into the mind of a brilliant politician who understands Washington better than most of her male compatriots.

The Report will likely leave you feeling rightfully enraged and frustrated, particularly when it’s revealed the post-report consequences (or lack thereof) of Jones’ damning findings. A furious film as fascinating as it is disturbing, this isn’t an easy watch, but it is one of the year’s most important and relevant films.

An absorbing and captivating look at the exhaustive lengths it took to bring Jones’ work to the public’s attention, The Report is ultimately a tribute to the impeccable work of one man whose determination opened the world’s eyes to how far America was willing to go in the name of patriotic protection.

Distributor: Transmission Films
Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Jon Hamm, Linda Powell, John Rothman, Joanne Tucker, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Ian Blackman, Dominic Fumusa, Fajer Kaisi, Zuhdi Boueri, Douglas Hodge, T. Ryder Smith, Carlos Gomez, Ted Levine, Tim Blake Nelson, Ratnesh Dubey, Scott Shepherd, Caroline Krass, Matthew Rhys, Kate Beahan, James Hindman
Director: Scott Z. Burns
Producers: Steven Soderbergh, Jennifer Fox, Scott Z. Burns, Kerry Orent, Michael Sugar, Danny Gabai, Eddy Moretti
Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns
Cinematography: Eigil Bryld
Production Design: Ethan Tobman
Costume Design: Susan Lyall
Music: David Wingo

Editing: Greg O’Bryant
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: 14th November 2019 (Australia)