It’s a recurring problem for today’s politically-inclined movies, and even more so for politically-inclined movies dealing with coverups and unconscionable establishment acts, that you can no longer surprise or shock the audience, let alone elicit anger. Which means they tend to function as mutual pats on the back of the privileged but cause-conscious Hollywood in-crowd, a vouching of just how decent and concerned for the welfare of us all they are, despite being safely ensconced in their ivory towers.
The end products are usually the kind of ineffectual fare George Clooney puts his name to, and despite no one having any interest in seeing them, they continue to get greenlit to keep the stars and creatives sweet. Short of a Truther account of 9/11, which you would never get – you wouldn’t even get a Capricorn One-style retelling, and no, Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t count – it takes the irreverence of The Big Short to muster wider interest (and when that’s repeated as a formula, as with the limp Vice, it’s back to the drawing board). Even Best Picture winner Spotlight elicited little more than polite nods and shrugs of approval. And so, a similar fate awaits Scott Z Burns’ The Report, a worthy, solid but mostly unremarkable account of exposing the CIA’s post 9/11 torture – or EIT, enhanced interrogation techniques – programme.
Burns is a repeat collaborator with Steven Soderbergh, and unsurprisingly, the latter’s name appears as a producer. This is the sort of topical fare Soderbergh takes an option out on between completing his latest event series and a movie shot on an iPhone. It’s commendable, but like almost everything Soderbergh attaches himself to, apparently on a whim, you end up wondering why precisely it needed to be made and who exactly will be wanting to see it (luckily, it has fetched up on Amazon, cherished home of such unloved offspring, so the answer remains in limbo). Is The Report telling anyone anything they didn’t know already, in an either incisive or illuminating manner?
Perhaps if there had been more attention to the CIA’s history of torture, rather than presenting events as an episode borne of extreme circumstances, The Report might have been more memorable. But alas, it is not dedicated to bringing down an institution. Hence, the best we get is a passing reference to “You yourself said, the CIA knew this shit didn’t work in 1978, and it didn’t stop them doing it again”. The Senate Intelligence Committee investigation at the centre of the film bore that out, in its references to the KUBARK manual, but Newsweek was surprised that the CIA’s Vietnam efforts merited little comment in the report. Perhaps it did; only a 500-page summary was eventually released, rather than the full-length version (“It’s 7000 pages, Dan. The Bible tells the history of mankind in less than that”).
Burns’ best work with Soderbergh resulted in the couldn’t-make-it-up delirium of The Informant! and more recently the underwhelming The Laundromat (he also has a credit on the forthcoming No Time to Die, perhaps owing to his Bourne experience). A little more the flair of those two might not have gone amiss, to make the movie stand out, on the basis that we all know the CIA torture people and we all know those in the government aren’t really that outraged and we all know, because we’re one and the same, that the public, instilled into a state of herd-like fear or antipathy went along with all measures deemed necessary.
The closest we come is the two CIA contractors promoting the EITs, suitably heightened in their enthusiastic application of their techniques – Douglas Hodge, on something of a roll right now, is especially odious – but in a picture otherwise so buttoned down, their behaviour actually feels more absurdist than it should.
Driver is appropriately zealous and indignant as intrepid Senate staffer Dan Jones, dedicated to outing the truth, and kept in something approaching check by an also very dependable Annette Bening as Diann Feinstein. The picture hits the closest it comes to a stride after Burns has laid out the bits we already know and he’s digging into the attempts to smear Dan and so get the report buried. This is the kind of push-pull tension you want and need from such a yarn; Jones teetering on the brink of becoming a Snowden-esque whistleblower comes across as very real (although, his pull back from the brink could be viewed as a disavowal of such behaviour). It’s also nice to see a nod to Zero Dark Thirty being bullshit – a vastly overrated film – with the political capital of Bin Laden’s offing laid out in no uncertain terms, vis-à-vis the relationship between the CIA’s “triumph” and Obama securing a second term.
There’s solid support in small roles from Ted Levine, Michael C Hall, John Hamm, Corey Stoll and Scott Shepherd. Maura Tierney makes for a particularly chilling composite of Gina Haspel, current CIA Director. You can’t fault the performers, or Burns’ intentions, but the picture fails to build up an air of legitimate paranoia about the agency’s unchecked sanction, even when pushing through the reading of the report, it ends up hinging on the view that “The CIA cannot spy on the US Congress”. Perhaps Burns felt more explicit thriller elements would detract; a carpark scene provides the obligatory nod to All the President’s Men, as does a brief appearance by Tim Blake Nelson prodding Dan on the right path, but the proceedings are otherwise too sure and steady.
Everyone involved in The Report – as antiseptic and forgettable a title as Truth – surely felt proud of a job well done, but the job itself was redundant. Full marks for taking a position that should be a given, and furnishing some detail beyond the headlines, but ultimately, the picture will be consigned to the same scrapheap of forgettability as almost every other War on Terror movie Hollywood has diligently choked out.