A didactic movie on an unpleasant subject, The Report is essentially a one-man show that dramatizes a nearly 7,000-page government study. If that doesn't sound too promising, writer-director Scott Z. Burns' second feature turns out be as urgent and engrossing as it is educational. Relevant, too, since we live in a moment when "Read the Transcript" is a T-shirt motto.
The movie's opening credits offer a three-word title, but the central one is quickly redacted. That word is "torture," which, after 9/11, was issued a new bureaucratic euphemism: "enhanced interrogation techniques."
The people who coined that term are gone when the movie opens. Young Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), so earnest that he logged three years with Teach for America in Baltimore, is looking for a job. He doesn't get one from Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm), who will reappear later. But there's an opening at the office of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), who's about to oversee an investigation into just what happened at U.S.-run prisons and "black sites" during the Bush-Cheney years.
Soon Jones and two cohorts are spending their days (and much of their nights) in a grim underground chamber in a CIA building. They spend years digging through more than 6 million pages of documents, as the room comes to resemble a detective's office in a murder-investigation thriller. Except that the mug shots on the wall aren't of suspects. They're of more than 100 victims of American brutality.
Burns, who has scripted three films for director Steven Soderbergh, nimbly distills key information into realistic dialogue. Jones discusses what he has learned with his boss, his fellow investigators and (cautiously) a reporter (Matthew Rhys). Further facts are revealed when Jones visits a lawyer after he's accused, groundlessly, of misconduct.
The investigation is supplemented by yellow-tinged flashbacks that introduce the CIA contractors (Douglas Hodge and T. Ryder Smith) who told the agency what it apparently wanted to hear: that sleep deprivation, nonstop heavy-metal music, stress positions, "rectal rehydration," waterboarding and other abuses would elicit useful information.
"You know this is against the law?" asks an alarmed FBI agent.
After the fact, everybody seems to know it was, which is why no one in authority wants Jones' report to go public. CIA Director John Brennan (Ted Levine) intends to stop the release. So does McDonough, who now represents "post-partisan" President Barack Obama. Crucial assistance finally arrives in the form of a real-world cameo.
The Report has been compared to the brilliant Spotlight, and the two films are similar in some ways. But where Spotlight was an ensemble piece, The Report is propelled mostly by Driver's performance as an intense yet amiable loner. While Bening is persuasive as Feinstein, without literally imitating her, most of the other characters are ghosts summoned from sheets of paper. Jones engages them fiercely, without ever actually meeting them.
Burns incorporates illuminating or amusing asides, including a glancing blow at Zero Dark Thirty, which bought into the myth of torture's effectiveness. And, as one disillusioned nonlawyer tells the self-styled interrogation gurus, "It's only legal if it works."
The Report has a few clunky moments, and it occasionally introduces complications that are dispatched before they have time to resonate. That's not surprising, since Burns is condensing the events of nearly 15 years into under two hours.
Those events, by the way, have not concluded definitively. Only an executive summary of the torture report was published. The Report ends with the filmmakers' request that the entire document be released.
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