The Spool / Movies
“The Report” is a Mostly Successful Political Thriller
Adam Driver delivers another powerful performance in Scott Z. Burns' drama about C.I.A. torture in the Middle East.

Adam Driver delivers another powerful performance in Scott Z. Burns’ drama about C.I.A. torture in the Middle East.

When Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) first shows up in Washington fresh out of grad school, he just wants to work behind the scenes for members of the Senate and try to make a difference. Upon the advice of Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm), however, he goes to work for the F.B.I. and other American intelligence agencies in order to gain experience. His work here draws the attention of Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), a United States Senator from California who wants Jones to head up an investigation into C.I.A. documents related to the organization’s use of torture tactics in the Middle East. What starts out as a daunting new assignment soon becomes a multi-year obsession for Jones in The Report, as he discovers (as does the audience through the use of orange-tinted flashback sequences) just how thorough the corruption and use of monstrous tactics were. 

However, Jones is not going to just be able to put together this report and then send out to the world. It’s not a shocking spoiler to say that Jones faces immense pressure from forces in the C.I.A. to keep this report about their use of depraved torture tactics under wraps. One of the most interesting parts of writer/director Scott Z. Burns‘ work as a writer on The Report is how such antagonism manifests in the modern-day segments of the story. Many of the people most opposed to this report aren’t individuals even tangentially connected to the people chronicled in the report. Rather, they’re newly installed members of the C.I.A. who want to whitewash the past of the organization. Their antagonism isn’t driven by personal vendettas, but instead their refusal to look at the past and learn from it, something that certainly resonates as an authentic facet of America.

That specific motivation for the dynamic between the lead characters and antagonistic figures of The Report is one of the most intriguing elements in Burns’ script. Speaking of the films characters, however, The Report has an issue with making its individual players fully-fleshed out people. Though significantly better than Burns’ other fall 2019 screenplay, The Laundromat, both share a common flaw of being more interested in explanations and history lessons than characters. True, Daniel Jones is an inherently reclusive character who doesn’t lend himself to much depth beyond just finishing up his report. However, a brief reference to Zero Dark Thirty reminds one of how that movie created a variety of distinct personalities while also managing to tell an effective story headlined a shut-off human being driven by a singular goal.

The Report is not a movie that has time for grandiose tendencies.

Luckily, the occasionally cold nature of the proceedings is compensated by how Burns feels far more comfortable as a writer doing his own take on a 1970’s political thriller than he did doing The Big Short-lite on The Laundromat. Burns is especially good at using the more measured aesthetic of the project to generate tension. Much like Spotlight , The Report depicts a David vs. Goliath tale about little guys taking on big corrupt powerful institutions in a manner that emphasizes just how difficult that process is. It doesn’t happen overnight, it happens over the course of numerous small steps forward. Burns knows this and makes every small obstacle facing Jones and his team count, each knock backward or dead-end, no matter how throwaway, is allowed to sting. 

The Report is not a movie that has time for grandiose tendencies, whether it’s in the depiction of Jones being terrified that his work won’t get released to the public, or the raw unflinching flashbacks to C.I.A. agents utilizing torture techniques. The latter element is seen throughout a number of flashback sequences that especially suffer from The Report’s recurring lack of humanity, too many of the characters in these scenes feel like caricatures rather than people. Still, they do at least lend viscerality to the horrors Jones and company are fighting to bring to light while Tim Blake Nelson, in a small role, manages to inject some humanity in his turn as an assistant physician (chosen because he hadn’t taken the Hippocratic Oath, so he could partake in harm against patients). Nelson carries a haunting quality to his subdued performance that’s just as powerful as the more gruesome on-screen depictions of torture.

The aforementioned problem of the characters being thinly-drawn limits what a number of supporting actors are capable of doing here, but thankfully, the most important players get saddled with performances as good as the one Nelson delivers. Annette Bening lends a stirring spirit to her critical turn as Dianne Feinstein that makes it understandable why people like Jones would follow her into battle.

As for the leading man himself, Adam Driver continues to show off his quietly impressive versatility by delivering a fervently determined lead performance divorced from his prior work in films like Paterson and Logan Lucky. Driver’s also great with the specific kind of dialogue he’s given, and the various sharp retorts Burns writes for Daniel Jones get delivered exquisitely through Driver’s sense of timing and delivery. Given that The Report does sometimes struggle with getting in touch with its humanity, it’s great that Driver’s excellent lead performance thrives because of its sense of personality.

The Report Trailer: