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.