An audience exists for The Report: people who believe men and women of steel hearts and constitutional sonorities ringing in their heads can transcend party loyalties for the sake of preserving our republic. Scott Z. Burns, a screenwriter for co-producer Steven Soderbergh, brings moral zeal to his fictional film about Senate staffer Daniel Jones’ years-long investigation into the CIA’s torture program created after the 9-11 attacks, an investigation that produced the eponymous report released five years ago in the waning days of Democratic Senate control. Taking a just-the-facts approach brings back the tumult of memories that the Obama and Trump administrations have not erased. Burns is clear about blame: the Bush White House for a program that never extracted useful (“actionable” to use Company jargon) intelligence from detainees it couldn’t have procured using conventional means; the Obama White House for the sake of bipartisan comity and, two years into the president’s first term, basking in the triumph of assassinating America’s Public Enemy #1. In a sense Burns’ approach is a kind of BothSidesism. But his failure to lay the blame at the feet of craven senators atrophies his film.
As played by Adam Driver, Jones is a mournful young man with an Ivy League pedigree attracted to government service like a novitiate before taking vows. On meeting Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm, condemned to a lifetime of playing slick apparatchiks) in the months before 9-11, he’s urged to get experience. Then he’s hired to serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee when Dianne Feinstein of California (Annette Bening) becomes chair, given the task of sifting through millions of CIA documents about what the agency called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or, to use the euphemistic drivel favored by newspapers at the time, “what some called torture.” The names, data, and monstrous neologisms return. The John Yoo memo in which organ failure and the crushing of testicles doesn’t count as “severe” treatment. Abu Zubaydah, who after FBI interrogation revealed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as master of the 9-11 attacks, was rendered into CIA custody for sexual and religious humiliation on the advice of James Elmer Mitchell, a psychologist who recommended that detainees endure SERE methods — and for which he and associate Bruce Jesser got paid $80 million of our tax dollars (the FBI chief who dismissed the agents? Robert Mueller). Rectal dehydration. “Reverse engineering.” A shaken Jones funnels the info to Feinstein, who according to the film offers constant support often tempered by political considerations. In The Report’s most memorable conclusion, “The language is built to choose sides.”
Playing “relentless” suits Driver. Lacking a personal life or at least a personal life worth showing (Burns provides an escape hatch in the first ten minutes when Jones is reminded that he can tell no one in his family about his discoveries), Jones leads the Bob Woodward life: sleepless nights, midnight meetings in parking garages, babbling at colleagues and superiors who respond with some variation of “Is that what you’re saying?” To generate excitement, Burns cuts to flashbacks in which the torture takes place and white men and women growl orders. This is the world of the corporate or governmental malfeasance picture, of which Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) are its most lauded creators: present-day scenes he lights in clammy blue-ish tones as if at a failing general practitioner’s small town office.
The pressure builds on Jones, even from Obamans like McDonough, resurrected as the president’s chief of staff. “The CIA just got him reelected,” Jones is reminded. Thus the bureaucratic semiotics by which the executive branch and the CIA signal motives to each other. Playing Feinstein as a woman of preternatural caution, Bening uncannily nails the senator’s unpredictable pauses and her habit of saying subject-verb constructions as if she were on NyQuil. A legislative career of straddling the demands of increasingly lawless Republican colleagues and grindingly pedantic do-gooder Democratic comrades builds to a moment of crisis for Feinstein as committee chair: release the report or not?
As courageous as The Report wants to be, it backs away from the conclusions drawn by anyone who wanted the perfidy of the Bush administration prosecuted; in doing so, it does a disservice to men and women for whom those awful years of 9-11, the Iraq War, and credit default swaps existed as a term prefatory to the Obama presidency. When a film cedes running time to a clip of the late John McCain, who often desecrated his stated principles with remarkable consistency, it’s clear it believes a mystical land of burbling streams and soft heather called Bipartisania exists. It believes that justice is possible if men and women of good faith transcend politics in the vacuum-ready quiet of the Senate Intelligence Committee chambers. In these moments The Report is as polished and vacuous as the worst of the Obama administration’s policy positions. A film that wanted to implicate the audience would have condemned the legislators who wanted to investigate crimes they had approved or ignored. Charles Pierce wrote almost five years ago:
Whenever a scandal like this hits, it seems, the people who give the actual orders, the people who create the climate for the crimes, and, in this case, the people who tortured the Constitution to find a legal justification for torturing human beings, are always invisible. As was the case with the Church commission, I believe, this Senate investigation shrank from demonstrating to the American people the kind of monsters they freely elected. I believe this investigation shrank from the obvious conclusion that the legislative branch fell down on its oversight responsibility and, therefore, to its responsibility to the country. I believe that this investigation shrank from the obvious conclusion that, as regards the investigation’s findings, the ultimate conclusion is that democracy committed a kind of suicide.
As The Report‘s rueful closing titles remind us, Gina Haspel, suzerain of the CIA’s black site in Thailand, was confirmed as the agency’s director 54-45. Not shown. What Burns doesn’t tell us: six Democrats joined their GOP buddies.