Writer and Director: Scott Z Burns
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
There are some moments at the London Film Festival that are extra special; seeing film stars is fun but it’s the stories of real-life heroes, people who’ve bravely faced extreme situations or overcome national opposition to do the right thing that stand out. In 2017, members of the SAS Squadron who stormed the Iranian Embassy to end the South Kensington siege in 1980 were in the audience, last year, Paul Conroy was there to see his experience in war zones with reporter Marie Colvin dramatised and in 2019 Daniel Jones walked onto the LFF stage to rapturous applause and a partial standing ovation.
Scott Z. Burns’ new film The Report is Daniel Jones’ story, the Senate investigator who exposed the CIA’s unethical use of torture on prisoners in the wake of 9/11 and created a 6000-word written report most of which is yet to be released. Covering six years up until a redacted executive summary in 2015, the film follows Daniel’s quest to uncover the truth, the 6 million documents his team read, the rationale behind the CIA’s use of “Enhance Interrogation Techniques” and the political fight through the Bush and Obama administration to make their findings public.
There is a fairly set formula for these kinds of movie, a lone wolf central character driven by integrity and diligence to expose the truth, the amassing of evidence and facts that shock the audience before a third act tussle to get to print. It’s a structure that works time and again, whether its Spotlight reporters or Primal Fear lawyers exposing child abuse in the Catholic Church or Frost / Nixon television interviewers catching the President in a lie.
Predictable perhaps but still effective as a dramatic device, Burns eschews personal information or any scenes of characters “off-duty” to focus entirely on the creation of this important document. Instead, The Report recognises that the CIA actively employing torture techniques and their failure to deliver any credible evidence from its extensive employment is more than enough drama to sustain this 2-hour film.
For British viewers the complicated hierarchy of the US legal and intelligence system is hard to navigate and while characters sometimes too bluntly remind us that the FBI does criminal investigation while the CIA does espionage, it’s not always entirely clear who is blocking what and why at any given time, not helped by the cuts back and forth in time. In the end it barely matters, Burns ensures the truths are clear enough with dramatic recreations of some of the tortures inflicted by two smug psychologists who “invented” their dehumanising interrogation procedure.
This can be difficult to watch as inmates are blasted with loud music, beaten-up, waterboarded and have tube inserted into their bottoms. Hearing later that one prisoner was waterboarded over 180 times are the kind of shocking facts Burns wants the audience to take away. It sounds polemical and occasionally it is, yet dressing The Report in the clothes of a thriller and ensuring Jones is seen to (mostly) follow due legal process despite temptation, means the film avoids finger-wagging and instead gives a worrying insight into the obfuscating nature of modern government.
Adam Driver is very good as Jones, impassioned, certain and driven to reveal the extensive truth to the American people. A definite good guy, we see him working long hours and agonising over what he’s seen, but Driver and Burns add nuance by using Jones’ fervour against him, casting doubt on the future of the document as his shouty insistence creates enemies all over Washington.
Annette Bening as Senator Feinstein has a more political game to play, pushing Jones to demonstrate the value of the report in the governmental landscape as well as struggling with the right time to play her hand but never resisting a head-to-head with CIA chiefs, while in a small role Jon Hamm represents the White House position notably reminding everyone that politics is messy.
Seeing the real Daniel Jones enjoying a real ovation adds an emotional overtone to a film that dramatises very recent events, and, as the film notes, whether you see him as hero or traitor The Report is really about the brave man determined to do the right thing. With over 6000 pages still to release, there’s much that we don’t yet know about this period of American history, but Burns’ film is a sharp reminder that even great democracies can fall well short of their own standards.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October