Dir. Scott Z. Burns. Starring Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Maura Tierney
Dan Jones (Driver) is determined to see his report come out “the right way.” It’s what he tells a New York Times reporter (Matthew Rhys, for the first time in his career meeting someone in secret without wearing a ridiculous wig) when it looks like that report might never see the light of day, might be buried once and for all by the CIA, certain that its own interests and the interests of national security are one and the same. “The right way” is a loaded statement here. Edward Snowden’s name pops up a few times in this movie. Jones is not interested in being Snowden. Martyrdom is not on his mind. “The right way” means using institutional channels, releasing a summary that his boss, Dianne Feinstein (Bening) and John McCain can speak about on the floor of the Senate. Leaking to the New York Times, as august as that choice has been historically, is the wrong way, although what exactly makes it wrong is never really gotten into. Maybe it really is just the legality thing. It’s not hard to imagine someone like Jones deciding that “legal” and “right” are basically synonymous. The Report is a movie where words like “oversight” and “separation of powers” are prized, and words like “leaks” and “whistleblower” are met with some skepticism. The Report is, for all of its hard-nosed, ripped from the transcripts, fluorescent lights and and concrete buildings milieu, a story about having faith in the ideals of the republic. This is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for those of us who eat up footnotes.
The Report is torn. It wants to show its appreciation for how much was done “the right way” (and, indeed, how any part of this report was published at all) and how much is yet to be done. The writing of the report itself does not take up more than half the movie, but the battle with the CIA to get the report, or something like it, out to the public is a much greater effort than a five-year, 24/7 investigation. Look no further than its ominous type filling the screen while Jones makes his long walk away from Capitol Hill; Gina Haspel, one of the people named in the report, is now director of the CIA. It’s not strange, necessarily, that The Report walks the line of “America has erred” and “America can do better.” So many of our movies are like this; so many of our classics are like this. What feels so odd to me is the way that the movie nakedly addresses one of the worst sins of the United States in this century, shows how the problem has been “fixed,” finding a victory in the publication of the summary. If Dan Jones is the system, and Dianne Feinstein is the system, then surely Gina Haspel must be the system as well? Surely the president who gave nominated her for the position and the Senate that confirmed her (which Feinstein is still a member of) are the system? Doesn’t “America can do better” pale, a little bit, in comparison to “America continues, gleefully, to err” ? The Report, for all the faith it has in institutions, has no plan for what might happen if the institutions not only act in self-defense as we might expect them to, but also win by cheating, as we might also expect them to do as well.
Think about a throwaway line regarding Jones’ résumé. He did Teach for America for a few years before heading back to grad school, where he got into national security after 9/11 and then did time at the FBI before coming to work as a staffer for Feinstein. There may not be an item on a résumé that says so much about a person as Teach for America, an organization which, under the guise of trying to serve underserved communities, sends new teachers both poorly and badly trained to the places in the country which need experienced teachers with excellent professional developments under the belts; it is an acceptable first out-of-college job for someone who might, yes, go back to grad school to work for the FBI, or might end up at a consulting firm, or might end up a lawyer. That it does not seem to make, well, teachers, might be a problem only if you think we might need these presumed best and brightest to enter that field. Teach for America is accepted by the institutions in much the same way that Feinstein accepts drone strikes, or the way that Jones accepts that you don’t leak what can come out with a Congressional seal of approval. Whether or not the institutions are basically insidious is just not on the radar of The Report, which wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t about our institutions (the same organizations lionized by soft liberals because of their presumed ability or willingness to resist Donald Trump) literally torturing people and getting away with it.
The Report is, this central contradiction aside, well-written. (Compared to Burns’ other screenplay this year for The Laundromat, one might even be inclined to call it “a return to form.”) It is maybe a smidge punchy—I’m thinking about the too self-aware line about “The truth is, he’s lying”—but in a drama like this one it behooves the movie to have some line ringing in our head. Perhaps it’s Feinstein’s understated but cutting reaction to hearing that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the man who planned the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times: “If it works, why do you need to do it 183 times?” You may get some mileage out of opposition to characters whose justification is “At least we’re better than the other guys.” Jones finds himself in this fight with Feinstein’s chief of staff, Marcy Morris (Linda Powell); Feinstein gets into it with Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm). McDonough is unwilling to bring out the torture report because of what he worries will be bad optics; Obama ran on unity and hope, and cutting the legs out from under the last administration on something as obviously wrong as torture does not smack much of either. The opposition from people like Feinstein comes down to, “But it’s the right thing to do.” Certainly those head-to-heads are effective enough in their own right. But boy, it is sure hard to top a scene in which Dan Jones, who, worked to the marrow and increasingly worried that all that work was for nothing, gets mad. He’s talking about “KSM” again—”tell me this isn’t a government operation,” laugh laugh laugh—and he is incensed at what he’s discovered. Mohammad, again, planned 9/11, arguably the worst day in American history since Pearl Harbor. The man, Jones says, deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail. But because of the fact that he was tortured again and again, under American law there would not even be a way to prosecute the guy. This is truly a staggering thought. At least American pilots could shoot down Yamamoto’s plane in a surprise attack during wartime; justice for KSM, we understand, will not come so easily, and if it is difficult to convict the man, then the survivors and the families of the dead can only lay their injustice at the feet of the American intelligence community.
When The Report does work, and on the whole it works much better than I’m giving it credit for doing, it works because of the push-pull between Driver and Bening. Compared to stuff we’ve all seen them in, The Report does not give them much to do in order to rouse our emotions, and Bening in particular plays Feinstein as so even-keeled, so difficult to push to emotion, that she comes off a little glacial. Yet Driver and Bening manage to find the connection between the characters they’re playing. They like each other, and they like things about one another; Jones admires Feinstein’s appropriate use of the institutional status she has, and Feinstein appreciates Jones’ tenacious work ethic and clear-eyed analysis. In other words, as a workplace drama (which of course it is in its own horrible way), The Report is interested in how one comports oneself at a job. Feinstein and Jones are a rare pairing in movies: a superior and a subordinate who will never be anything but. It is as impossible to imagine them kicking off a romance or a deep friendship as it is impossible to imagine him becoming the senator and her staring at computers in a basement. The normalcy of their pairing in the face of a truly abnormal scenario is enough to keep us involved.