The Report is the latest original film from Amazon, and was written and directed by Scott Z. Burns (writer on The Bourne Ultimatum and Contagion), operating as his feature directorial debut, at least in terms of its theatrical distribution. It stars Adam Driver as Daniel Jones, a man tasked by his employer, Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Benning) with leading a bipartisan investigation into the CIA’s use of torture techniques (or EITs – Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) on suspected terrorist operatives following the aftermath of 9/11, a report which would later become known as the “Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program.” After assembling a team and combing through research, he begins to uncover dark revelations regarding the program, and as the CIA and the United States Senate become at odds with one another, Jones becomes caught up in a tangled web of cover-ups, dirty politics, and frustrating delays, causing an upsetting lack of progress. As he perseveres against all odds, Jones sets out to expose the truth, claiming that the program itself did not work on even one detainee, and determined above all else that someone be held accountable for the CIA’s mistakes. The film also stars Jon Hamm, Ted Levine, Corey Stoll, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Douglas Hodge, Scott Shepherd, Linda Powell, and Matthew Rhys.
Following its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, there was a great deal of buzz going around about The Report, with many outlets determining that this could be Adam Driver’s big Oscar push for Best Lead Actor, but a little while after people had seen it and the year started to move towards summer, that conversation began to fade, giving way to other awards-hopeful projects like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Joker, which ended up taking over the vast majority of awards talk, especially after the latter took home the esteemed Golden Lion, the Venice Film Festival’s highest honor. Then, as fall began to see a resurgence of awards-hopeful contenders once again, Amazon Prime Video released the first teaser trailer for the film, and it was back in the conversation again; the trailer itself was so good that it managed to shoot the film all the way up to #4 in my Top 10 Most Anticipated Non-Blockbuster Films for the Rest of 2019, but yet again, the film quickly faded out of the awards conversation once more (and perhaps for the final time) as Netflix’s own Adam Driver-led vehicle, Marriage Story, seemed to be where the focus was in terms of Driver landing a nomination. And that is where I was at when I finally went to go see The Report in theaters, knowing it wouldn’t be on Prime Video until at least the 29th of November.
It’s not often that one gets to see a film regarding any subject that recontextualizes an entirely different film closely related to that same subject, much less an entirely different film so critically acclaimed as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but there’s a moment in The Report where an ad for that 2012 film is playing during a news broadcast, and the only thing I could feel was frustration that many who saw that film won’t end up even bothering to check out this one, either due to lack of screening availability or because Prime hasn’t exactly rolled out the red carpet in terms of promotion. That’s a real shame too, because The Report actually has some very pertinent things to say about the excuses we make to justify our own mistakes, particularly wherein it concerns foreign policy and national security. In that vein, it could perhaps be looked upon as the Spotlight of this year, a no-nonsense, fact-based drama uncovering dark revelations about the United States institutions we’re so often told are there for our own good, regardless of what they choose to do under the guise of ensuring that good. This is a movie about accountability – the vitality of it, the red tape that prevents it, and the struggle to maintain it in the face of overwhelming and often ridiculously stacked odds – and that is where it finds its greatest strengths. The Report acts not just as an informative drama seeking to educate the American public about some very recent atrocities committed or condoned by their own leaders, but as a mark of accountability on those very leaders themselves. This is a film that says to those that allowed this to go forward, “we knew this was wrong, you knew this was wrong, and we’re not going to let it happen again without the public knowing how it works.”
This is all thanks to a remarkably sharp script by Scott Z. Burns, and one that cements him as one of the most promising screenwriters to watch for in the coming years; there is a lot of detail in this script, and to juggle all of its many moving parts is a tough task in itself, but somehow Burns is able to not only make us understand it, but become invested in it, as if we, too, are trying to get this report out to the public outside the movie theater doors. His direction may lack feature experience, and as a director, he doesn’t seem to have much of a visual vision in mind apart from “make it feel real,” employing more hand-held camera styles than anything else, but Burns feeds us a lot of information in a very short amount of time, and his ability as a writer to make even most of it clear to the audience is high commendable, even if that clarity doesn’t quite kick into high gear until the second act.
Even with a well-written script, though, given its procedural nature and practically glue-tight proximity to the facts of the actual study, The Report could still be difficult to invest in, but Burns’ not so secret weapon for gaining our trust in his story is Adam Driver, whose performance in the film is one of his best to date; I won’t say that it is his best quite yet, but it’s certainly up there in terms of his filmography. He’s seriously that good here, and in a less crowded year, both he and Annette Benning (who also does an excellent job as Senator Dianne Feinstein) could have landed nominations for this movie, though probably stuck to the #4 and #5 spots on the nominations list. He’s quickly becoming one of those actors I would follow into any project he decides to take on, and after watching what he was able to do with this, I cannot wait to see what he does with Marriage Story.
Despite all the good will The Report puts out, however, film is not totally without flaws, and there are a few reasons why it might not reach the heights the studio had perhaps hoped it would achieve following Sundance. For one, it does start a little bit jumpy; due to the nature of the material, the 2-hour runtime requires a lot of information to get set up very quickly, so the movie jumps around from face to face and beat to beat without ever really allowing the audience to get settled into this world of Capitol Hill and senate meetings and intelligence briefings. In that vein, the first act is somewhat poorly edited, neither offending nor enticing the viewer from a story standpoint, but frustrating regular cinephiles from a pure production standpoint. In fact, I’d wager to say that this movie actually could have been about half an hour longer in order to give the audience room to breathe in the tone for a bit. The film also is noticeably small scale, and while that’s not a bad thing in itself, it does clarify why this thing is moving to Prime so fast after its theatrical debut, as the images conjured here may end up playing better on the small screen, where the camera and the subject it captures can afford to be a little more intimate than usual. Perhaps this might have been better as a short-form miniseries. Other than those particular things, however, I still enjoyed the film quite a bit, and am certainly interested in learning more about the study that Dan Jones and his team conducted.
The Report isn’t quite as amazing as it would have needed to be to stay in the awards conversation any longer than it did, but despite some early issues with the editing and pacing of the film feeling a bit staccatic, Scott Z. Burns’ sharp script and Adam Driver’s great performance manage to elevate the film just enough as an educational piece of moviemaking that it really is worth checking out if you happen to have the chance. It takes a bit, but the film is tense, dramatic, informative, and just as frustrating to the viewer as the study was to its leaders. If there were any film this year that could be deemed as truly important (and, dare I say, essential) viewing, especially for U.S. citizens, it’s this one.
I’m giving “The Report” an 8.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.