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LFF 2019 Review: The Report – “A spectacular and necessary piece of cinema”

Driver highlights an extreme case of redactivitis

It’s what many of us hope for, the knowledge that based-on-a-true-story cinema can do more than entertain, it can actually redress the past. This evolvement of film, asking it to deliver more than should be asked of anything creative, is likely a result of our paranoid digital age. Can we trust anything anyone in power says anymore?

Perhaps we can trust The Report, a movie which manages to hold the political world to account while being immensely entertaining. Screenwriter and first-time feature director Scott Z Burns has made a movie that uncovers faults of the recent past within a complicated moral maze.

The Report makes its message clear from the first on-screen credit (by redacting the word TORTURE). It focuses on those who brought to light how the American military gave itself the right to torture humans in order to gain intelligence. Based on real events, mid-level CIA agent, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) is tasked by Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) with investigating the (George W) Bush-era government’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques (or ‘EITs’ – an acronym that comes to haunt the viewer) in an attempt to seek retribution for foreign terrorism. Divided into chronological annual segments, the film follows Jones working tirelessly to get to the truth: that his own Government justified torture without any real sign that it worked, and that the same Government sought to hide this knowledge from oversight committees and from the public for years.

What could be a pedestrian factual drama is brought to life by a combination of Driver’s innate watchability, a taut script and even tighter direction, as Burns thrillingly shows how Jones is thwarted at every attempt to get to the truth, while his allies seek to hide their shameful secrets. Burns carefully weaves scenes of waterboarding with political hearings and dry humour to make his point. The film manages to remain biting without ever straying into satire; there is a bitterness in the storytelling, without theatricality or judgement. The mood is helped by Eigil Bryld‘s lighting and structural landscaping, turning a set of ugly governmental buildings into something almost picturesque.

Driver’s lead is aided by a brilliant supporting cast, with great turns from Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm, Corey Stoll, Tim Blake Nelson, Linda Powell and Sarah Goldberg. Every person has a part to play, and The Report allows some characters to be strident as well as genuinely funny – particularly using Scott Shepherd to great effect. Bening is very good in a difficult role, as Feinstein feels like an insular person in a very precarious political position.

Back to Driver; he seems to inhabit the role of Jones, a man completely dedicated, moderating his disgust with diligence. Driver is on screen for the majority of the film, driving home the difficulties of this kind of investigation, including the relentless research required and the real personal stakes in this moral mire. Because, importantly, The Report seeks to show the facets of potential whistle-blowing and how difficult it is to come up against the Military-Industrial Complex. Everywhere Jones looks he finds authority figures making life-or-death decisions in grey areas, making Driver the viewer’s moral compass, without ever leaning into melodrama.

Burns is pretty famous in screenwriting circles, having written scripts for many top-quality films in a similar military/political vein (from high action/drama in The Bourne Ultimatum and Contagion through to the comedic The Informant!). His writing sometimes seeks to ridicule, but maybe the responsibility of directing lead to the more serious tone of The Report, and the movie is much better for this. Hopefully, the success of The Report will lead to more directing work for Burns, he has an eye for skewering the truth with wit and respect.

The Report is a spectacular and necessary piece of cinema, and a worthy addition to the growing canon of paranoid political drama. In fact, there are a few divisive political figures who would really benefit from watching it.

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