Docudrama ‘The Report’ goes after ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ intelligence narrative
There’s a brief moment in “The Report,” a new docudrama about the U.S. Senate investigation into prisoner torture, that name drops its cinematic cousin, the Oscar-nominated 2012 drama about the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“The Report” goes out of its way to make this reference, accusing that film of furthering the idea that a tortured prisoner gave up actionable intelligence that led U.S. forces to Bin Laden.
Over the course of two hours, writer/director Scott Z. Burns drags audiences through a prolonged examination of the CIA’s conduct in the war on terrorism that feels like aimless wandering through the desert until the puzzle pieces finally connect.
In truth, setting the record straight — atoning for the cinematic sins of “Zero Dark Thirty” if you will — is the only real reason a film like “The Report” exists.
Purchased by Amazon Studios after its January debut at the Sundance Film Festival, “The Report” is a cerebral, clinical look at the five-year efforts of staffers working for Senator Dianne Feinstein on an in-depth investigation of the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program.
The film serves as a terrific showcase for Adam Driver, who carries “The Report” with a relentless energy as lead investigator Daniel Jones. His performance is accelerated with finesse like a sports car driver with his foot constantly on the gas but deftly easing in and out of the turns.
Driver’s Jones commands the screen from the opening moments and serves as a rallying point for audiences who may get lost in the details. His ability to resonate emotion while maintaining control imprints Jones onto viewers, putting them firmly in his corner and reinforcing the film’s moral compass.
Casting as celebrated an actress as four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening implies Feinstein plays a major, transformational role in the events of “The Report,” but Burns underutilizes a very willing Bening with brief, expository scenes that often seem to demarcate moments in time rather than serve to advance the story.
In many ways, the entire ensemble cast — save for Driver — is marginalized at the expense of viewers watching how Jones and his team research and develop their report.
Maura Tierney and Tim Blake Nelson essentially star in their own short film sprinkled across the early part of “The Report” as CIA employees working a black site where the first waterboarding of prisoners takes place. Though vital to the overall scope of the film, audiences don’t see enough of the world of the black site as Driver’s Jones uncovers it with “The Report” often getting bogged down in minutia.
Secondary characters like Ted Levine’s CIA Director John Brennan and Jon Hamm’s White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough veer close to mustache-twirling villain territory without completely crossing the line, although it’s clear Burns isn’t interested in creating complexity in his characters.
“The Report” plays to Burns’ strengths as a screenwriter with tense, memorable dialogue that will help engage and captivate audiences in spite of far too many scenes of Driver scrolling through documents on a desktop computer.
The film does a terrifyingly authentic job of showcasing the brutality of waterboarding and other torture techniques described in the report, although a yellowish haze that accompanies these flashbacks feels cliché.
Much like “Molly’s Game” for celebrated writer Aaron Sorkin, “The Report” is a solid directorial debut for a filmmaker who clearly hasn’t figured out a visual style and it often feels as if Burns is paying too close a homage to Alan J. Pakula’s taut, apprehensioninducing work directing “All The President’s Men.”
Despite being Amazon’s biggest release of the year, “The Report” likely won’t have the push to garner many accolades come Oscar season. Driver’s strong performance here will add to his frontrunner status as a Best Actor contender for Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” from Netflix and Bening’s turn as Feinstein isn’t transformative enough to secure her a spot in the supporting actress category.
The film’s best shot at nominations may be in screenplay, where Burns’ strong writing carries audiences through large technical segments of data collection in brisk and inventive ways.
“The Report” isn’t strong enough technically to merit going out of the way to see it on limited screens, but the screenplay and Driver’s compelling performance do merit audiences taking a chance on the film when it hits Amazon Prime November 29.
Matt Ward is a programmer for the Hill Country Film Festival and local film critic, who is also an official Rotten Tomatoes reviewer.