Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘The Report’: snatched from the headlines

Dan Webster

Headline news has always made for good movie fodder. But this seems to be true now more than ever. Which is what a film titled "The Report" does, as I try to explain in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In the early 1970s,  the nation was shocked by a succession of news reports. The first came in 1971 with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret government-funded study that indicated not only that the Vietnam War could not be won but that government officials had repeatedly lied about how well the war was going.

Then in 1972 came the Watergate burglary, the subsequent investigation of which led ultimately to more than a few prison sentences for some 48 government officials and, on Aug. 8, 1974, the resignation of then-president Richard Nixon.

How times have changed. Earlier this month, the Washington Post – again citing government documents – reported that senior officials from three presidential administrations had done much the same regarding the Afghanistan War as President Lyndon Johnson’s administration had done with Vietnam: by "making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable."

Yet unlike the political climate of five decades ago, this latest news wasn’t greeted with massive outcries. The overall reaction has been more of a massive shrug of the shoulders.

And it wasn’t the first recent shrug. In 2014, a U.S. Senate Select Committee headed by Sen. Diane Feinstein released a portion of a much larger report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, which lasted from 2001 to 2009. That report, led by investigator Daniel J. Jones, concluded both that the CIA’s program – particularly regarding its brutal “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs – was ineffective and that the agency had repeatedly lied in an effort to fend off oversight.

The massive work that went into the writing of that report is now the subject of a film titled, simply, “The Report,” written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, and now streaming on Amazon Prime.

As with all such “this-really-happened” movie reconstructions of history, especially contemporary history, writer-director Burns has compressed time, amalgamated some characters and eliminated others. For example, 19 staffers worked with Jones on the report, far more than the three lonely investigators Burns shows laboring long hours in a windowless office.

Yet much of the film holds up to inspection. At least some of the dialogue – specifically that of former CIA chief John Brennan (played by Ted Levine) – was taken directly from official records. And the actual internal debates over the legality of the EITs – or, let’s be honest, torture – have long been public knowledge.

Burns was smart enough to cast Adam Driver – the actor of the moment – as Jones. It’s Driver’s very uniqueness, his odd leading man’s physicality, not to mention his skill at conveying a range of emotions – much of it with just a slight change of expression – that fuels the film’s narration. Annette Bening’s ability to nail Sen. Feinstein also is key.

Yet “The Report,” despite it earnestness, has a feel of been there/done that. Nothing Burns does matches, much less surpasses, what Alan J. Pakula did in 1976 with “All the President’s Men.”

Again, though, that was a different, less jaded era. Maybe the problem isn’t Burns’ movie. Maybe the problem is us.