Scott Z. Burns’ theatrical directorial debut brutally re-examines modern America’s darkest deeds in this compelling docu-thriller
Over the course of his career behind the camera, Scott Z. Burns has written some of Steven Soderbergh’s most engaging films and has also directed several TV episodes and miniseries of his own. Burns now makes his theatrical directorial debut with The Report, which follows the U.S. Senate staffers tasked with holding their government accountable for torturing prisoners during the War on Terror. Much like Burns’ past writing efforts, The Report is a bitterly rewarding dose of cinematic medicine — one where entertainment comes as a side effect of its visceral yet sobering examination of our all-too-recent history.
Our guide is Dan Jones (Adam Driver), a rising Senate investigator tasked by Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) to head up the torture committee’s impending investigation. The Report spends little time with Jones in his outside world before he’s catapulted into endless documentation of human atrocities. However, little characterization is needed to provide context for Jones’ headstrong if obsessive drive to keep his government on the straight-and-narrow. Initially given a year and six other staffers to complete his report, Jones quickly finds himself headed into a bureaucratic labyrinth full of idealistic hubris and crippling moral relativism — one that consumes the next few years of his life.
The real-life Torture Report resulted in a document spanning thousands of pages and hundreds of victims. Burns’ screenplay feels like a formal antithesis of Jones’ work — it’s ferociously efficient and economical in its dispensation of information and context, full of the barbed, clinical (even humorous) dialogue that marked Burns’ earlier Side Effects and Contagion. From the beginning, Jones is ordered to maintain an objective, non-partisan point of view — even ordered to ensure there’s “no Republican or Democrat sentences” in his report’s final draft. Early on, though, it’s clear that such a task is impossible — that despite any allegiance to maintain objectivity, there’s an instinctual, non-political response to shine a light on injustice. Much of Burns’ work plays off of provoking human instincts with this clinical view — whether it be widespread disease, Hitchcockian wrong-man crises, or here with insidious bureaucratic conspiracies, someone’s got to do something. It’s not that Burns is keeping us at arm’s length — rather, he’s asking us to meet him halfway as a storyteller, wholly daring the audience to invest themselves in his characters, flaws, obsessions, and all.
What’s so magnetic and repulsive about the people followed in The Report is their united anxiety towards being on the right side of history — first to defend the country at all costs, then to hold that same country accountable for its own actions. The origins of the torture orders are depicted as a chaotic haze born of the same traumatic incident — a mixture of vengeance, blame-shifting, and patriotic duty — and the same motivations are quickly used to justify torture’s prolonged use and eventual cover-up. Colorful marketing materials and pseudoscience are used, as well as disturbingly humorous euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques” whose insidiousness takes on blood-curdling levels. People of authority are constantly skirting the line — hiring physicians’ assistants to play doctor to torture victims because bringing in doctors would acknowledge harm being caused, in one instance. In others, interrogators constantly subject victims to the same demeaning and traumatizing tasks in the vain hope that maybe this time — this time — something useful will come to light. As Moira Tierney’s bone-chilling administrator demands later in the film, “it’s only legal if it works.”
Burns’ sense of judgment isn’t born of his characters’ motivations — it’s perfectly human to want to right whatever wrongs you feel like you have some control over. No, The Report more than effectively demonstrates just how easily that sense of emotional validity and moral relativism can overwhelm our sense of humanity and common decency. Extending beyond that, it’s an examination of the narratives we spin in order to sleep at night — and just how fragile those can be in the harsh light of objective truth.
This sense of relativism doesn’t dead-end with those who directly committed torture. In a further evening of the keel, Burns is also fascinated with how the desire to do the right thing conflicts with the pragmatism of putting truth to action. Bening’s Dianne Feinstein acts as Jones’ beacon of hope, a person of authority who possesses the voice to command those necessary to action when all is said and done. But as Jones’ report builds in scope and magnitude, even Feinstein wavers — convinced of the urgency of Jones’ findings but erringly focused on the ever-shifting practicality of politics. Both presidential administrations are taken to task for their implementation and endorsement of torture — Bush for its implementation and execution, and Obama for its continued practice the eventual justifying narrative in the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s fatal compound raid in Pakistan. Jones himself is eventually pushed down a path walked by those like Edward Snowden — and even the current as-of-yet anonymous whistleblower whose testimony has led to the current impeachment investigation. This journey is one of many false stops and starts in a frustratingly riveting narrative fueled by Jones’ cynical yet optimistic belief that one day the truth will out.
Throughout, Jones’ faith in the system is endlessly tested and stripped bare as he bluntly grinds against the staffers and senators that make up the government’s myriad cogs. But as obsessive and destructive as his dedication can be, it’s one that Burns desperately impassions his audience to hold onto in dark times: that any government is as good and just as the people that comprise it, and keeping us on that path means confronting the truths we’d rather bury amidst bulletproof defenses of patriotic duty and bringing to light any injustices our authorities may commit.
The Report is a film that daringly dodges attempts at being labeled left-wing, right-wing, or apolitical — doing the right thing has no political affiliation, nor should it. It’s films like The Report that urge us to keep those in power in check, to re-examine the last few years with astonishing clarity, and to not let the lessons of the past go unheeded.
The Report hits Austin theaters on November 15th courtesy of Amazon Studios.