Scott Z. Burns’ The Report puts Adam Driver at the front of an enticing ensemble to meticulously examine the uncovering of the US military’s enhanced interrogation tactics in the wake of 9/11. Like the intended bipartisan investigation, the film sublimates its rage at the administration as much as it can, resulting in a film that’s clinical nature reflects the neutral aim of the reporting it depicts. But as the film’s subtle thesis shows, there are certain ethical lines crossed that transcend neutrality, and the film ultimately simmers with condemnation. It’s the rarest bird of adult dramas for mainstream but patient audiences, unsalacious to the extreme as information flows from familiar faces.
Burns takes an aridly-scripted approach to recent American history – the antithesis of the garishly performative bellyflop he gave to The Laundromat this fall – making for a film that excites more from its cumulative effect rather than in any of its moments. Even as its tension peaks with Driver’s mounting emotional outbursts, the film maintains an straightforward visual language and aggressively stifled worplay in delivering its steady stream of data and context. By even journalistic thriller standards, The Report is bone dry.
But still this only promotes a vague sense of understanding of the report’s details and the process of its delivery, much like the hazy knowledgeability of the masses at the time. Days blurred together in that era to the benefit of an administration attempting to dissolve consciousness of one war into another. The Report generates that kind of exhaustion-driven displacement of time, where months blur together with the slow drip of conclusive facts, and with intentionally arduous effect. In its duller passages the film plays as an oral history, but at its rageful best, it emulates how it felt to be alive at a time of certainty of a crime committed that took bureaucratic eons to be brought to justice. Burns isn’t inventive, but he produces something stoically precise.
The film is another stellar performance from Adam Driver this year, here leaning in to droll authenticity to play staffer Daniel J. Jones. Driver has become our modern everyman, especially adept at playing blank canvases slowly morphed by a sense of justice or unconcealable feeling. Here he captures a mode in the vein of classic Robert Redford or James Stewart, capable of captivating with his understated charisma and ability to keep righteous monologue humanly grounded. The Report is certainly as satisfyingly digestible as it is thanks to his star power, and exquisite measuring of appropriate wit for the material.
Even more mindfully subdued is Annette Bening’s uncanny but unflashy performance as Senator Diane Fienstein. Hers is a performance that can shift the gravity of a scene, building tension from just her glance or a moment of hesitancy. Her scenes with Driver are defined by their measured, but intense expression, complicating the stakes of the film both personal, political, and ideological. There is something essential to the film’s composure in her performance, even though it’s quite subtle.
With a cast that also includes Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm, and Michael C. Hall, the film shows Burns as a capable if unvarnished writer-director, rewarding if not the most exciting.
The Report was screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.