Rhys Handley on Scott Z. Burns’s ‘The Report’ (2019)
Scott Z. Burns never more brazenly expounds what he’s proposing with The Report as he does when the film directly name checks Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012). The two films’ overlapping post-9/11 subject matter surrounding the conduct of the US armed forces in their push against Al-Qaeda puts them in direct conversation and, where some considered the 2012 Oscar nominee to salute American operatives for their willingness to violate moral taboo in service of their country, The Report is far more self-aware — this reference carrying a dual-edge as both hat-tip and call-out.
Metatextuality courses through the veins of The Report, which is inherently a story of self-reckoning and self-criticism writ large (‘large’ being the United States secret services). It focuses on the tireless work of Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), who spent years sifting through innumerable CIA records and communique to uncover the vast abuses of power and human rights in its anti-terrorist torture programme.
As Jones works tirelessly to force the US establishment to look hard in the mirror and check itself, Burns’ film never loses sight of its own construction and utilises this visual medium of storytelling to convey its demanding, intellectually rigorous subject with flair and energy. Burns is a regular screenwriting collaborator for Steven Soderbergh, the master of self-reflexivity whose knack for deft and effective winks-to-camera has clearly bled into Burns’ own repertoire.
With this, his second feature as director following nuclear conspiracy drama Pu-239 (2003), Burns relates his dense, far-reaching material by making use of a playful bag of tricks, including non-linear storytelling, dramatic irony and such wry needle-drops. It is a thrilling experience for the viewer, all the while never losing sight of the gravity of what’s at stake, and the journalistic imperative to make sure the truth is broadcast.
Driver, nowadays a bona fide proponent of quality, muscular performances, gives depth and likability to the straightforward, unknowable Jones — a jobsworth with impenetrable tunnel vision — by teasing open the vulnerable cracks in the man’s cool, analytical veneer. No one believed in Jones’ report as steadfastly as he did, not even his boss Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), who commissioned the project in the first place, and Driver bolsters his steady hand by hinting at Jones’ quiet, desperate commitment to the work.
In his orbit is a considerable and impressive cast of supporting players, chief among them Bening’s Senator Feinstein, whose array of spectacular hairpieces charts the passage of time just as well as the timeline intertitles which pop up now and then to denote the date. Bening squares up to Driver, and various other male performers, in a robust performance that reinforces the power and authority she consistently brings to the table.
A cavalcade of cameos flies past as Burns flits back and forth across the years, with familiar faces including Jon Hamm, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Matthew Rhys and Michael C. Hall crossing back and forth over the screen. In some ways, it’s distracting to see performers of such notoriety and prestige arrive and then immediately disappear in such bit parts (which may also hint at a significantly longer cut beyond the film’s exactly two-hour runtime), but it plays back into Burns’ preoccupation with the meta, it also serves to fortify the film’s importance with a capital ‘I’.
Wading as it does through murky waters, though, there is plenty in The Report that makes for uneasy viewing. Frank and explicit depictions of torture are abundant, with the harrowing excess effective in its making tangible the abstract concepts bandied around in the emails and memos Jones is uncovering – but questions of these scenes’ damaging tendency to exploit and ‘Other’ men from the Middle East are largely left to dangle. It is more convincing than the more blatantly xenophobic Zero Dark Thirty, given nuance by a brief tangent concerning a defecting FBI agent of Middle Eastern descent played by Fajer Kaisi, but the queasiness still lurks.
The prevailing takeaway from Burns’ measured and acerbic deep-dive is a steadfast commitment to transparency and human decency in the face of fear and violence, trumpeted humbly by Driver’s realisation of the film’s central figure. Never cloying or moralistic, The Report learns from Jones’ tribulations that the public has a right to know how the powerful conduct themselves in its name and that information must be packaged in a way that is digestible and engaging, finding the delicate middle-ground between exclusion and patronisation. That this film is so successful in its purpose is a testament to the far reach and communicative power of cinema.
The Report screened as part of the 63rd BFI London Film Festival and is scheduled for UK release 15th November 2019.