It’s hard to have any kind of conversation about The Report, the new movie from writer and director Scott Z. Burns, that doesn’t start with an innate feeling of exhaustion.
Currently, a president has been impeached. The authority of American law enforcement and intelligence agencies is regularly undermined and ignored. The recent release of federal documents known as the “Afghanistan Papers” (the result of a Washington Post legal battle) has painted a picture of an 18-year-long American war in Afghanistan that officials knew was fatally flawed but continued to publicly say was a success.
So do any of us really have the brain space for a reflection on the CIA’s use of torture on prisoners in the early-to-mid 2000s?
The answer, Burns seems to think, is yes. At its heart, an unbridled sense of “we live in this country, and that means taking responsibility for its actions” drives The Report.
The movie is centered around Daniel J. Jones (played by Adam Driver), a Senate staffer working for Senator Dianne Feinstein (played by Annette Bening) and tasked, in 2009, to investigate and compile a report on the CIA’s use of torture (called, euphemistically, “enhanced interrogation techniques”) during the War on Terror.
Part character study and part period piece, the movie follows Jones as he pieces together how the torture program was developed, approved, and left intact even when it produced no relevant intelligence information. (The CIA continues to dispute that no relevant information was found with “enhanced interrogation techniques.”)
Though the narrative is compelling and historically accurate, “The Report” is also constrained by its accuracy. Jones spent most of his time working on the Senate report in a windowless room somewhere in the bowels of CIA headquarters, clicking on a computer through 6.2 million CIA documents. Two hours of a man at a desk doesn’t make a movie, so Burns adds drama and depth by flashing back to the beginnings of the torture program after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and by focusing on the interplay between Jones and Senator Feinstein.
Ultimately, The Report has great acting and intense purpose and is a noble attempt to revisit this chapter of recent American history. But it also falls flat for two reasons: A movie about people talking about other people is a difficult watch, and there’s no great payoff. For that, there’s a reality to blame; Jones’ full 6,300-page study is still classified, though a 525-page executive report was published in 2014 with many redactions.
“What I hope we do is show three things,” Burns said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. “One, that these techniques don’t work. Two, it’s not who our country claims to be, it’s not who I thought we were and it’s not who I want us to be. And three, that the process by which this report came out was really difficult and brutal. I think the audience can interpret it either way. Either the system worked because we got 500 pages out or the system is flawed because there are 6,300 pages that remain classified.”
With those goals in mind, The Report earns a solid 3.5 out of 5 from me. It is a worthy watch, but definitely not for every occasion. And its score gets bumped up to 4 out of 5 when I remember that Jones, Senator Feinstein, and Burns are Jewish (Burns is originally from Golden Valley, Minn.). Though the subject matter is sober, there is a sense of pride in watching a movie about Jews being wholly American in their pursuit of truth and government accountability.
So go watch the movie. Or, for a more personal experience, Beth El Synagogue is bringing Daniel J. Jones on Thursday, January 9, to speak about his work in the Senate as part of Beth El’s “Heroes Among Us” series.
I’m sure Jones, in light of the story shown in The Report, will have many interesting things to say.