Adam Driver's 'The Report' Exposes the Dark Side of the War on Terror
With his long fingers and narrow eyes, Adam Driver rifles through stacks of paper like the fate of the universe is at stake. The intensity that the lanky actor brings to mundane tasks -- like squinting at a government-issued computer, lugging around an overstuffed binder, or taking a brisk jog through the monument-strewn cityscape of Washington D.C. -- helps electrify the occasionally dry, properly indignant docudrama The Report, which aims to set the record straight regarding the CIA's use of torture in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Driver makes the conflicting tensions of modern bureaucracy psychologically fraught -- and, yes, sexy.
Playing real-life Senate Intelligence Committee staffer Daniel Jones, who spent four years working for the FBI before reporting to Senator Diane Feinstein (Annette Benning), Driver is tasked with bringing all the "Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All the President's Men" energy he can muster to the proceedings. It's a big ask for the performer, who first rose to fame as the troubled boyfriend on HBO's Girls and later achieved meme-lord status with his villainous turn as the bratty Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars films. In The Report, he must rattle off disturbing information, provide an emotional throughline to a knotty narrative, and serve as a moral compass for a nation. He's like a combination of a Boy Scout and a podcast host.
The movie constructed around him, which was written and directed by The Bourne Ultimatum and Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, occasionally mimics the paranoid style of '70s conspiracy thrillers, particularly the fear of an all-seeing surveillance apparatus, but it's mostly concerned with replicating the dogged single-mindedness of its protagonist. There are shadows and clandestine meetings; there's also clarity. The Report wants you to know what did and did not happen.
The facts, coherently and carefully laid out here, are compelling: Jones and a small group of researchers, pouring over documents and transcripts, pierced the shroud of obfuscation put in place to protect those responsible for implementing, carrying out, and later defending the "enhanced interrogation" tactics that did so much damage to America's reputation abroad. As the Jones discovers, and Burns makes a point of circling with red ink, the black sites, waterboarding sessions, and brutal "learned helplessnes" methods of the torture program were ineffective in producing valuable intelligence. That distinction, dramatized at various points in the film via flashbacks, is central to the movie's larger argument: These cruel, evil strategies, concocted by inexperienced psychologists, didn't even achieve their intended effects.
In telling this intricate, year-spanning story, Burns allows moments of wryness to sneak in. The drab PowerPoint presentation used to sell the program has a terrifying, numbing familiarity to it, a reminder of how jargon gets deployed to hide ethical depravity in a number of industries. If it looks official, with the proper diagrams and bullet points in place, it must be right!
Similarly, some of the scenes with Tim Blake Nelson's Raymond Nathan, a CIA medical officer who witnessed many of the heinous acts committed at these sites, have a touch of bleak humor to them. While The Report isn't a zany comedy like The Informant! or The Laundromat, the two ripped-from-the-headlines movies Burns wrote for director Steven Soderbergh, it does display an ear for the absurd at crucial points.
The story could have used even more mischief. There's a puckishness to certain moments, like when cultural products of the era like Zero Dark Thirty and 24 get directly called out for their inaccurate portrayals of torture as a fact-finding tool. Also, the movie goes to great lengths to show the role the Obama administration played in keeping details of the program under wraps, preventing those responsible from facing real punishment. (At the same time, Feinstein, one of the movie's heroes, is shown to be contemptuous of controversial whistle-blower Edward Snowden.) Occasionally, rage simmers beneath the surface, but too often the movie defaults to a more even-keeled approach, relying on Driver to ignite a spark.
Self-consciously unflashy and circumspect, The Report ends up playing like a celebration of proceduralism: The movie presents a portrait of a man who labors for years on a 6,700-page document outfitted with 8,000 footnotes because he believes in the system's ability to check itself. "If it’s gonna come out, it’s gonna come out the right way," Jones tells a New York Times reporter, played by Matthew Rhys of The Americans, one of the many friendly faces from television used to help the viewer track all the potentially confusing comings and goings. His quest for accountability drives the movie. In its attempts to mirror that quest, The Report can feel overwhelmed by its own fastidiousness, breaking out the highlighter when a simple underline might get the job done.