How do you get audiences to pay attention to a story about the crimes of the Bush administration, a feat many well-meaning filmmakers of the ’00s failed to pull off? In Adam McKay’s Vice, the solution is to pile on as many metafictional tricks as possible, in the hope that with enough added sugar, even the most acidic abuses of power will go down smooth. McKay’s gonzo style garnered boatloads of Oscar nominations, but it’s still just one approach among many. Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a sober, and sobering, account of the Senate’s investigation into the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, provides another path.
This is a movie where most of the significant events take place in a windowless room underground. Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) is an aide to Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, giving great downturned-lip acting) tasked with assembling a report on what really went on in the CIA’s interrogations. He’s granted an office in a Langley basement, and access to the agency’s internal records, the events of which play out in garish yellow flashbacks. (As is customary in political thrillers, the present-day scenes are muted gray.) The structure is fairly simple — Driver searches the records, finds something that reveals the CIA hasn’t been telling the truth, the CIA stonewalls, repeat — but this spartan retelling manages to illuminate the specific malignancy of the neocon era without turning its villains into cackling caricatures. There are the private contractors who convince the agency to reverse decades of accepted practice with a PowerPoint presentation; the administration officials who get palpable glee out of the word games that provide the legal underpinning for torture; the intelligence lifers desperate to prevent the next 9/11, after failing to prevent the first one.
But it’s also hard to watch the film without coming away frustrated by the Obama administration, represented here by Jon Hamm’s Denis McDonough, who were so taken by their own self-image as transformational post-partisan figures that they refused to hold anyone in the previous administration accountable. In one darkly comic moment, McDonough informs Feinstein they can’t tick off the Republicans, or else they’ll refuse to work with the president on immigration reform or gun control. Imagine that!
As in Vice, little may be new to a plugged-in viewer, but even in the heady air of Park City, where there are no shortage of stories about the ways America’s betrayed its ideals, the film’s stark moral clarity stands out. Burns previously worked as a screenwriter for Steven Soderbergh, and he’s adept at imbuing long scenes of exposition with straightforward urgency — no winking needed. (This urgency may have been matched on the set; the director explained after my screening that production lasted a mere three weeks.) Multiple viewers at the festival have come out comparing The Report to Spotlight, and the two films share a similar interest in the intricacies of the investigative process, how one small discovery leads to another, which leads to a bigger discovery, which eventually uncovers a decade’s worth of lies.
The War on Terror has proven a tricky subject for liberal Hollywood to tackle. So far the biggest successes have been the films that consider it a sadly necessary loss of national innocence (American Sniper, or Zero Dark Thirty, which The Report may as well be a subtweet of), or the ones that lean into a familiar mode of lefty sarcasm (Vice, the works of Michael Moore). It’s unclear whether The Report can convince moviegoers who sat out films like Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, and Good Kill, to show up for a movie that makes you feel bad about every politician except Dianne Feinstein. But at least it makes you feel good about Dianne Feinstein!