Juxtapose in your head the stomach-turning photos from Abu Ghraib with the image of a childish George W. Bush proclaiming, “The United States doesn’t torture!” and you’ll understand the emotions that fuel Scott Z. Burns’s The Report. The film centers on the multiyear labor of Senate staffer Daniel Jones (played by Adam Driver) to penetrate CIA and White House stonewalls over the post-9/11 “Detention and Interrogation Program,” and specifically “enhanced interrogation,” which might include [redacted], and, if you’re a strict Muslim, [redacted]. Jones battled the CIA for un-redacted files and then, in a nearly bare basement room under hard fluorescent lights, viewed accounts and photos so horrific that his personal life faded into the background. Month after month, year after year, he was consumed with the problem of how to document these
war crimes harsh practices and get them before the public — a nearly insurmountable task thanks to [redacted].
It’s a dry, arm’s-length movie that seeps into your blood as it seeps into Jones’s. The young staffer opens a new box of files and we’re suddenly in the room with Pentagon employees in September 2001, as their building rocks from the impact of a jumbo jetliner, and then at Langley as dour, resolute agents (played by, among others, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall) determine how to translate Vice-President Dick Cheney’s avowal that the U.S. will be “going to the dark side, if you will” into action. Reading along, Jones is understandably startled by the credence the CIA gives to a pair of homely psychologists, Jessen and Mitchell (T. Ryder Smith and Douglas Hodge), who claim they can obtain precious intel by generating dread, dependency, and “learned helplessness” in al-Qaeda soldiers. They’re practically salivating in various “black sites” as they gaze on masked, naked, shivering prisoners, some who’ve been in identical positions for weeks. They reminded me of the Scottish grave robbers Burke and Hare, though scuzzier. Jones also learns that George W. Bush might actually have believed his nonsense about the U.S. and torture: Right in the files are warnings not to inform the commander-in-chief. The clear implication is that the orders were coming directly from [redacted].
The movie doesn’t say it out loud but … you know … Okay, three syllables: penis + metal restraint + femur-tibia connector.
Annette Bening plays Jones’s boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein, as a woman whose earnest public persona has seeped into all aspects of her personality, so that she talks even to her junior staff in code and in placards — but with a slight twinkle, to suggest Feinstein’s hard façade has an element of slyness. Driver’s Jones has little in the way of peripheral vision. He hangs on his boss’s words, parsing their implications, trying to apply protocol and prudence and law to acts so flagrantly lawless. The Report’s most surprising antagonist is not CIA director John Brennan (Ted Levine) or torture memo man John Yoo (Pun Bandhu) or the agents who hiss to Jones that he’s a traitor to his own country. It’s Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough, played with expert unctuousness by Jon Hamm. McDonough’s position is that it’s great that the report was compiled — thank you for your service! — but that releasing it to the public would be counterproductive. Do you remember how President Obama held Bush administration lawbreakers accountable? Neither do I. He wanted to be “post-partisan.”
Accidentally or on purpose (a bit of both), The Report arrives in time to remind us how hard it is to be a whistle-blower, even in a culture that supposedly prizes righteous informants — who in real life are harassed and villainized and forced to ask themselves over and over if it was worth it. (What’s Christine Blasey Ford up to these days?) Even though we know — no spoiler — that the title report did see the light of day, albeit with [redacted], no one went to prison for Geneva Conventions violations, for crimes against humanity. The Report is gripping but also depressing, because it suggests we need to be saved by commercial filmmakers, and to pray that one-100th of the people who turn out to see Driver wield a light saber will want to see him stare down the kind of scoundrels who — even as I write this — flout every one of our country’s professed values. My own hope is that the [redacted]. Our nation deserves no less.