One of the last-resort strategies being used by Fox News to undermine the Trump impeachment case is to complain that it’s too boring to watch witness after witness pile ignominy on the President. The point was suprisingly echoed by an NBC reporter who complained the proceedings lacked “pizzazz” – a word defined by the dictionary as “an attractive combination of vitality and glamour”. Just what one woud expect from an impeachment hearing! If only the career diplomats had decided to slip into something sparkly and start with a dance routine it might have been more entertaining.
A quick glance at the American reviews of Scott Z. Burns’s The Report reveals a similar critical response. The film is portrayed as dull and plodding, dry but worthy. In a nutshell: it lacks pizzazz.
I must be on the dry side myself because I found The Report to be every bit as gripping as the impeachment hearings. Having to choose this week between The Report and another film starring Adam Driver – Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story – I felt a clear preference for the former. This was partly because the Baumbach movie reminded me too much of Ingmar Bergman’s interminable Scenes from a Marriage (1973). Clive James sat through night after night of the TV version and finally concluded he had been in the presence of “the higher trash”. With some regret, because Bergman is one of the indisputable greats of the cinema, I could only agree.
Baumbach is also a skilful director but his dialogue can be too clever by half, conferring a terminal stageiness on his characters. In Marriage Story, Driver and Scarlett Johansson play a couple going through a painful, protracted divorce, in a saga that feels as if every detail is based on the director’s personal experience. There are some brilliant moments but far too many maudlin passages when we are given no option but to shower pity on the hapless husband.
The same Adam Driver who stumbles from one tragic humiliation to another in Marriage Story, is a steely, determined political operative in The Report. In this film the obstacles are less personal but even more forbidding: the intransigence of the CIA, the hypocrisy and spinelessness of politicians, the sheer drudgery of poring over documents in a windowless bunker, compiling a monumental report no-one wanted to read.
This may not sound like promising material for a political thriller, but Burns, better known as a scriptwriter for Steven Soderbergh, has cut a path through the bureaucratic jungle of Washington D.C. The Report, which begins in 2009, is essentially the story of a staffer who does his job too well, after Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) sends him to investigate the CIA’s alleged use of torture on detainees during the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”.
Although the Trump era has rewritten the rule book as to the limits of acceptable political behaviour it was only a decade ago that the United States was still reeling from the aftermath of the Gulf War in which they had been caught torturing and humiliating prisoners. Barack Obama’s newly elected government was expected to clean up the mess left by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, but instead of going in hard to punish the culprits, the new President’s approach was concilatory – seeing it as his task to heal the rifts that had divided the nation.
This willingness to overlook the sins of the past would become a nightmare for Jones, who spent six years in a top-secret lock-up at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, working his way through 6.3 million pages of classified records to compile the largest-ever report in the history of the US Senate. The so-called “torture report” would clock in at 6,700 pages, with 38,000 footnotes.
The film reveals the onerous nature of the task without forcing us to linger too long in the catacomb that became Jones’s second home. If his life seems colourless it’s because he spends almost all of his time underground.
The narrative is enlivened with frequent flashbacks to the CIA’s decision to try out a set of “enhanced interrogation techniques” proposed by two crackpot psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen (Douglas Hodge and T. Ryder Smith). These techniques included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, mock burial, and other forms of torture. In the rush to get information from terror suspects, nothing was ruled out.
Mitchell and Jessen’s methods were an almost total failure but the agency had to keep claiming successes in order to justify their initial embrace of the policy. In his investigations Jones uncovered a mountain of offences, false claims and cover-ups. The evidence was so overwhelming, so damning, that it proved to be an embarrassment to a government intent on restoring public trust in organisations such as the CIA.
This film details one man’s efforts to bring the truth to light in the face of concerted opposition from the CIA, and the reluctance of his own bosses. It presents an unflattering portrait of former CIA chief, John Brennan (Ted Levine), who was a driving force behind the cover-up. Nowadays Brennan is known as one of Donald Trump’s most dedicated critics, an MSNBC regular, and hero of the opposition.
His former colleague, Gina Haspel, who features as a composite character called Bernadette (played by Maura Tierney), has risen to be director of the CIA, after assuring President Trump that waterboarding really works. Originally Haspel is alleged to have believed the scandal associated with the torture report would render her ineligible to head the agency, but with Trump it turned out to be a big asset.
Burns could not have known the release of his film would coincide with the daily drama of impeachment proceedings but the timing could not be more opportune. The Report is a reminder that abuse of power and political cowardice will ultimately be exposed. In regards to the consequences it sends a more ambiguous message.
Written & directed by Scott Z. Burns
Starring Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Corey Stoll, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Douglas Hodge, T. Ryder Smith
USA, rated M, 119 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 23 November, 2019