Tag Archives: B

THE REPORT

Producer: Steven Soderbergh, Jennifer Fox, Scott Z. Burns, Kerry Orent, Michael Sugar, Danny Gabai and Eddy Moretti
Director: Scott Z. Burns
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Stars: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, John Hamm, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Ted Levine, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Linda Powell, John Rothman, Joanne Tucker, Ian Blackman, Dominic Fumusa, Fajer Kaisi, Zuhdi Boueri, Douglas Hodge, T. Ryder Smith, Carlos Gomez, Ratnesh Dubey, Scott Shepherd, Caroline Krass, Matthew Rhys, Kate Beahan and James Hindman
Studio: Amazon Studios

B

Anyone craving a modern counterpart to the classic political thrillers of the seventies—whether fact-based docu-dramas like “All the President’s Men” or pieces of paranoid fiction like “The Parallax View”—should welcome Scott Z. Burns’s “The Report,” ever if it traffics more in low-key recreation than nerve-wracking suspense. Like the recent but little-seen British import “Official Secrets,” it deals with an actual case involving people eventually resorting to whistleblowing when the system obstructs their attempts to bring evidence of governmental malfeasance to public scrutiny, but in this case the locale is not London but Washington, D.C. Of course, given recent events in the nation’s capital, it also speaks to our current political situation even though it deals with events from the past, though the recent past.

The titular document is a report about the use of what were euphemistically called enhanced interrogation techniques—i.e., torture—by the CIA in the aftermath of 9/11. (The clever opening credits give the title first as “The Torture Report,” with the second word then blacked out as though it were being redacted.) It was compiled over the course of five years by a small group of researchers appointed by a congressional oversight committee; here the process begins when Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), a staff member in the office of California Senator Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening), is chosen to head the effort to look into what actually occurred after questions are raised about the destruction of videos made during the CIA interrogation of prisoners.

As Jones and his team sift through the documents reluctantly provided by the agency under assurances of confidentiality, Burns uses flashbacks to show what had happened. At first the interrogation sessions were conducted using conventional techniques by professionals like Arab-speaking agent Ali Soufari (Fajer Kaisi), but when the results were not sufficiently actionable to satisfy the upper echelons of the agency, two consultants, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen (Douglas Hodge and T. Ryder Smith), were hired. They claimed to have developed more efficient and productive interrogation methods, the brutality of which horrified CIA operatives like Raymond Nathan (Tim Blake Nelson), who was forced to watch the sessions and later became a backstage source for Jones.

In identifying the origins of the “enhanced” program Burns’s script points an accusing finger at top figures in the George W. Bush administration—in particular Vice-President Dick Cheney—shown here, as he also was in “Vice,” as the main promoter of the process, though CIA Director George Tenet (Dominic Fumusa) and members of his staff—played by the likes of Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall—hardly get a pass.

Nor does the Obama administration escape Burns’s censure. It ended the Enhanced Interrogation program, but is portrayed as choosing to keep under wraps an investigation conducted by the CIA itself, which concluded that the process had been ineffectual and revealed that misidentifications and faulty intelligence had actually resulted in the imprisonment and mistreatment of the wrong people. Yet the new CIA Director, John Brennan (Ted Levine), seeks to protect the Agency by burying the report, and the President and his chief of staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm) are complicit in his effort for utterly pragmatic political reasons.

Finally Jones takes a step that violates the Senate’s understanding with the CIA and has serious ramifications both for him and Feinstein. That explains scenes in which he meets with a New York Times reporter, and more chillingly with a high-priced lawyer (Corey Stoll) whose advice he urgently seeks to avoid prosecution.

“The Report” offers a rather dry chronological account of the compilation of the enormous titular document, given urgency by the intensity Driver brings to his role of an honest man seeking to make certain the truth will be brought to public attention. But Burns situates Jones’s personal crusade within the larger Washington context, from CIA offices to White House briefing rooms and conference rooms in the Senate, where Feinstein—played by Bening with a composed air that, combined with perfect makeup and costuming, captures the essence of the real person—and other senators like Sheldon Whitehouse (John Rothman) and Mark Udall (Scott Shepherd) play roles in the gradually unfolding drama. John McCain, understandably a staunch opponent of torture in any form, also appears, but in archival clips that are periodically inserted into the dramatic recreations.

Crafted by Burns with taste and care, and with able contributions from production designer Ethan Tobman and costumer Susan Lyell, “The Report” captures the closed, quietly dangerous atmosphere of Washington well; cinematographer Eigil Bryld’s images are especially effective in conveying the clubby, insular texture of the nation’s seats of power, while editor Greg O’Bryant lays the facts out efficiently and calmly, balancing the story’s various threads without the distortion that a sense of righteous anger might have invited. The major departure from the air of prevailing straightforwardness is in the treatment of Mitchell and Jessen, who are ridiculed as almost farcical con-men who effectively hoodwinked—and disgraced—the CIA.

The result is a somber, almost solemn account of a stain on America’s claim to act with honor and rectitude even under extreme pressure—an engrossing docu-drama that, by avoiding excessive sensationalism or partisanship, invites viewers to think seriously about the issues of governmental decision-making and secrecy that Daniel Jones’s story raises. It’s not as flashy as “All the President’s Men,” “The Parallel View” or other similar films of their time, but its more restrained, reflective approach may be better suited to evoking the sort of rational discourse that has become increasingly rare in today’s political climate.

JOJO RABBIT

Producer: Carthew Neal and Taika Waititi
Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi
Stars: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

B

There’s a long tradition, going back to Charlie Chaplin and “To Be or Not to Be,” of Hitler-Nazi satire, though the dam really broke in the late sixties with Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” and “Hogan’s Heroes” on TV. While Taika Waititi’s contribution to the genre doesn’t break entirely new ground, therefore, it is notable for conjoining it with a seriocomic coming-of-age element and a very serious Anne Frank-style plot thread—as well as employing humor with a contemporary, almost frat-boy edge. The result is an admittedly bizarre picture that, while like its predecessors will offend some, makes up in sheer energy and inventiveness what it lacks in tonal consistency.

The real protagonist of the film is Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year old imbued with dedication to everything Nazi in the waning days of World War II. His best pal is Yorki (Archie Yates), a chubby, bespectacled kid whose devotion to the National Socialist ideal is no less complete but much less intense. Johannes (or Jojo) is such a fervent believer that he has conjured up an imaginary friend—Adolf Hitler himself (Waititi), who eggs him on like some goofy cheerleader.

Unfortunately, Jojo’s inability to live up to the Nazi ideal of coldhearted virility is revealed at a Hitler Youth Camp session presided over by laid-back Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) with the assistance of his second-in-command Finkel (Alfie Allen) and their wacky female aide Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). Humiliated when he’s unable to strangle a rabbit, Jojo tries to redeem himself by hurling a grenade, only to be injured in the explosion. After his recovery, the badly-scarred, limping boy winds up as an intern in Klenzendorf’s office.

Jojo’s other close relationship is with his freewheeling single mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who is harboring a secret from him: an anti-Nazi, she has hidden a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in an upstairs crawlspace of their home, and the boy naturally discovers her. He’s at once horrified and fascinated, torn between his pal Adolf’s admonitions and his gradual warming to the interloper.

He responds by trying to use Elsa as a source of spurious information about Jews for a childish exposé of their inhuman qualities he intends to compile, but as he does so, of course, her human reality overtakes his wild ideological imaginings. His attitude takes a complete turn after a house inspection by a ghoulishly grinning Gestapo officer (Stephen Merchant), a tragic twist involving Rosie, the collapse of the war effort and news from Berlin about the real Hitler.

“Jojo Rabbit” is a deliberately quirky hybrid—a blending of a youngster’s “coming to terms with horror” story—a sort-of cousin to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”—with blissfully wacked-out ridicule of Nazis that makes “Hogan’s Heroes” look mild by comparison, including a Hitler who’s an exuberantly nutty “Animal House” caricature (until, at the very end, he morphs into something pretty terrifying). Whether you will find the juxtapositions of tone jarring or grimly funny, weirdly hilarious or grotesquely tasteless, is the question; widely divided reactions to the film are inevitable. And the throwaway bits of dialogue, from Hitler’s anachronistically absurd exhortations to Jojo’s uncomprehending reactions and the nonsensical observations of Klenzendorf and Rahm, will similarly irritate or amuse.

What’s unquestionable is the astonishing performance of Davis as the tyke who finds his most cherished beliefs challenged. He actually manages to make Jojo’s addiction to an odious ideology seem an engaging, foolishly youthful attitude rather than appalling, and the addition of Yates’s more practical, aw-shucks Yorki to the equation further mitigates the discomfort you might feel. Of course the effect that Elsa—played with a combination of spunkiness and poignancy by McKenzie—has on Jojo also sweetens the character.

The adults around the youngsters are largely caricatures—even Rosie, played by Johansson with a degree of animation that’s rare for her, is basically a one-note figure. But Rockwell clearly has fun with the obtuse Klenzendorf, who ultimately shows more depth than first appears the case, as does Wilson, as undisciplined as ever as Rahm (though she shows no signs of depth at all). Merchant is genuinely spooky as the cadaverous Gestapo man, whose entrance leads to an explosion of “Heils” that rivals the credits sequence, composed of found footage set to the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”

That quasi-sophomoric type of humor is characteristic of “Jojo Rabbit,” which revels in dumb jokes like a groaner about shepherds. Waititi’s Hitler falls into that same category, being derived more from outlandish sketch comedy than anything else. But if you’re in the right mood, it can be very funny—certainly more so than Dick Shawn’s Fuhrer.

The film is much less daring and provocative than it seems to be, of course; for all its outrageousness, it’s actually a fairly familiar story—an inherently serious one—festooned with goofy comic overtones. But it’s played with zest by all, and is nicely appointed, with the production design (Ra Vincent), costumes (Mayes C. Rubeo) excellent and the cinematography (Mihai Malaimare Jr.) and editing (Tom Eagles) equally expert.

In short, a pretty good addition to films that take a satirical swipe at Hitler and his mad philosophy.