July 6, 2020

REEL VALUES

A FRESH LOOK AT FILM, TELEVISION, AND EMERGING PLATFORMS

A Summation of Balance: The Report

“We will go down in history either as the world’s greatest statesmen or its worst villains.”

The call of duty can only be heard by the most remarkable of individuals. Many claim to have heard it’s wail, but few have the courage to act on it. At first, it seems to be a place which holds good company in your brothers and sisters in arms. However, a select few reach the point where to pursue the call becomes a lonely endeavor. When many lose sight of why they fought in the first place, there are the exceptional few who hold onto to their drive, as they see the fight through to its bitter and tedious end. The Report follows a man who fought for liberty and due process, and the lengths he was willing to go to uncover the truth.

“Tell me your story.” Most people (actors) start sweating when asked that question. Some sputter around, desperately trying to remember their life as disparate bullet points, some go silent and ask themselves “have I done anything worthwhile?” And some have a legitimately interesting and genuine story of being motivated to serve his nation following the attacks on September 11th; told with humility and professionalism. That man is both Daniel Jones and the actor playing him, former USMC Lance Corporal Adam Driver. The beginning of the film is his origin story from unemployment to becoming a staffer for Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (Annette Benning). In 2005, Daniel is selected to investigate the alleged destruction of CIA interrogation recordings. When the investigation uncovers evidence of the CIA torturing alleged al Qaeda members without due process, Daniel dives in. The development of “The Torture Report” becomes his life for the next decade, and his thorough investigation faces opposition from the intelligence community, members of both political parties on the SSCI, and two White House administrations. No f#@%$!& pressure.

These interrogations were conducted with the goal in mind of finding those responsible for the deaths of 3000 innocent Americans. This manhunt has been depicted on film before, most notably in 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, (a film that has not aged well as a piece of entertainment or as federal propaganda). Scott Z. Burns has always been a writer concerned with uncovering truth within government institutions and doing so in a way that acknowledges the state of pop culture. Knowing this, his inclusion of a scene where Daniel Jones is watching a television promo for Zero Dark Thirty may be the most Scott thing that Scott has ever done. It feels both like his meta-commentator sense of humor, as well as his critique of an easily bought-and-paid-for viewership, willing to swallow any pill handed to them by the mainstream media (that is, if the authors have the pedigree that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal do). The shortcomings of the 2012 film are obvious: none of these interrogations led to any actionable intelligence that was not already obtained through other, less immoral, procedures. Burns himself may be on the record for saying this film is a piece of entertainment first, but do not let that modesty fool you, he does not contradict the facts of the real-life report. His artistic liberties are taken to streamline certain narrative devices. Maura Tierney’s character is an amalgamation of a few real women within the CIA, Michael C. Hall is an amalgamation several different legal counsels representing the CIA, etc.

The truly commendable aspect of the film is how it tows the line between well-paced paperwork thriller and surprisingly accurate historical drama. Driver’s interpretation of Jones is as a true-born patriot who is upset not by his own shortcomings, but by the betrayal of his own government. The treatment of the accused is not only heinous when they have not been put through due process, but it ensures that if they were ever put on trial for their acts of terrorism, that the means used to coerce them for information would save them from a prison sentence. Jones’ frustration is but one more layer of tragedy surrounding this terrible spectacle. The nation he chose to advocate for (along with all of the other countless Americans who chose to act following 2001) has abandoned principle out of vengeance and with unforeseen consequences. As it often happens in these films, a whistleblower (Tim Blake Nelson in a criminally small role for a criminally underrated actor) makes his presence known to Daniel, and corroborates his investigative efforts. The wisdom this character shares with the audience outlines the long-term effect of the torture program: if an American soldier were to surrender to or be captured by the enemy, how could they possibly expect to be treated fairly when the world one day finds out what the CIA has taken part in?

To assign blame by playing “Agency Acronym Bingo” would be irresponsible, so the film gets specific when it introduces former USAF members Bruce Jessen and James Elmer Mitchell as the authors of the Enhanced Interrogation program. Jessen and Mitchell were retired during the 9/11 attacks, and say they just want the peace of mind that the nation lost that day. Their motives claim to be national, but their methods are undoubtedly despicable. So much so that the film highlights how many CIA agents stationed at the interrogation black sites asked for a transfer. They were disturbed by the “disregard for the ethics and standards” expressed by Jessen and Mitchell. The film does not hold back, and whilst the scenes depicting torture are brief, they leave an impression on the viewer. These are not gorey sequences, the violation and horrors are  of the mind and spirit. Your investment in the story is not challenged by these sequences, but Burns and co.’s willingness to go to the difficult moral places none of us take pleasure in is what makes this film responsible. The acknowledgment of these difficulties is the only way forwards, with the belief that we can do better.

There is nothing I can say about the film that it is not consciously aware of. It reaches a tonally believable balance of so many ideas, and it does so by removing most, if not all, political biases the filmmakers may have. The facts speak for themselves here, contrivance is left at the door. Nobody handled this situation perfectly, even fewer handled it well. The film goes to great lengths to make clear how both the Bush and Obama administrations tried to bury the facts of this case to protect their chances of re-election, and even our hero Daniel succumbs to certain backdoors when the report’s future hangs in the balance. At one point, Daniel turns down a New York Times reporter’s offer to break the story in the press (played by the sublime Matthew Rhys), in favor of doing it “the right way” through official channels. However, even Daniel’s virtue falters  when he understands that those same official channels have no desire to see this report come to light.

The walls close in on Daniel and the truth, and the claustrophobia is palpable in Eigil Bryld’s cinematography. The gloomy, cold, desolate offices Jones is forced to conduct his investigation in draws comparison to a prison cell more than it does to a thinking space. David Wingo’s score and Greg O’Bryant’s editing keep the film moving at an expert pace. Burns’ script is both methodical and witty, without letting the colloquialism of his dialogue stretch the believability of the narrative. It operates to make the film digestible enough to allow the audience to keep up, but also to illustrate how Jones and Feinstein are trying to cope with their disillusionment, and make sense of the world they thought they knew.

My first exposure to Adam Driver was in 2013’s Frances Ha, and his effortless charm was put on full display. Seven years later, and he is the truest movie star of our current generation of actors. His naturalism, facility to handle a dizzying amount of text, his comfort with silent behavior and his annual output are all unparalleled. He did four films in 2019 alone; one directed by Jim Jarmusch, two Oscar contenders, and the conclusion of the Star Wars saga. The fact that he was even cast as Dan Jones when he himself enlisted following September 11th is beyond coincidence. He was born to play this role, and what keeps me from rolling my eyes at that fact, is that I don’t get the sense that Driver would say that about himself. Whether it is an accurate portrayal of the real man or the facts, I care not. Based on what the actual report outlines, there does not seem to be many misleading aspects of the film’s dramatization of this story.

The only thing to be held against this film is that we do not have a lot of perspective on the recent past. History has a way of being unkind to films like these once enough time has passed, and enough people involved come forward with their accounts. The entertainment value of this genre can withstand the passage of time, but any political property put to film has the danger of becoming obsolete. What should not be held against the film is its lack of judgment on these real-life figures. Regardless of your opinions on people such as Senator Feinstein, the film only portrays events critical to the torture report, and only shows what it can prove these people did.

What will help this film survive is the balance of release and restraint on display by Driver and the filmmakers. When all Daniel wants to do is let loose upon the perpetrators of terrorism and torture, he maintains professionalism, and lets his research and work ethic do the talking. His impassioned recitation of what he has uncovered has a deliberate strain, as if his body is holding his mind back from getting into a verbal brawl. A senate staffer trying not to yell at a superior so he doesn’t lose his job has no business being this exhilarating. The most relatable character in this film is a bureaucrat going through email threads and government documents. The greatest moment of humor and shock is when he holds up a page that has been almost completely covered in black marker. In a lesser artist’s hands, none of this would work: in Adam we trust.

It’s simultaneously surprising and unsurprising how little public discourse there was surrounding this film during release. Perhaps because it took the high road where many mainstream news and entertainment outlets would not.  While time does not look fondly on some of the most prolific institutional corruption thrillers (Yes, I’m looking at you Spotlight), I do hope that history will come to favor The Report. It’s desire for the scales of justice and the branches of government to balance out is truly admirable. There is a nobility on display in the filmmaking that you cannot help but marvel at. The argument for a streaming service to host high profile films is empowered by Amazon’s pride in having The Report available for all of their Prime members to access. It is a reminder that the truth is always available to us, but only if we choose to seek it out, and answer it’s call. If we look to The Report as an example, then we know it is out there.

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