This powerful new addition to what’s shaping up to be the year of Adam Driver casts the Marriage Story star in the all-work-no-play role of Daniel Jones, the real-life Senate investigator charged with filing a report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on suspected terrorists after September 11th. “The (Torture) Report” — the word torture has been redacted in the title — took Jones and his team six years to complete. And boy, do you feel the grinding, painstaking effort of the job in every minute of this potent political thriller’s two-hour running time. But you also get a film that’s willing to challenge and provoke, and in only his second feature directing assignment (after 2006’s Pu-239), Scott Z. Burns impressively does the opposite of showing off. His script is miles from the action blast of his screenplay for The Bourne Ultimatum and the narrative trickery he employed for Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat. Burns believes that the granular details of cerebral inquiry into issues of morality are more than enough to hold our rapt attention. He’s right.
Working in windowless basements — the definition of fluorescent hell — under the strict supervision of his boss, Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), Jones launches a dogged pursuit of the facts. If he has a personal life, Burns isn’t interested in telling us; the film can be summed up by an image of Jones buried in millions of documents that might somehow add up to non-partisan truth. Driver plays the investigator like a gathering storm, confident that the results of his research will stick, no matter how explosive. And Bening is magnificent as Feinstein, publicly poised and unflappable, yet seething inside about how the CIA bypassed the rule of law by torturing Al Qaeda detainees despite the statement of President George W. Bush that “we do not condone torture.” The congresswoman knows how politics work, but the need to temper her position is outweighed by her desire for justice.
Flashbacks to CIA black sites using waterboarding, ice baths, mock burials, sleep-depriving blasts of heavy metal and other enhanced interrogation techniques make it brutally clear that the answers the CIA seeks never materialize. (The dig at Zero Dark Thirty feels intentional). Dr. Jim Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) is the clueless psychologist from the private sector who’s given a budget of $80 million to prove that torture works. The fact that it doesn’t is corroborated by Jones’ covert meetings with a CIA medical officer (Tim Blake Nelson). And though the Bush administration is indicted for its lies, Burns doesn’t cut the Obama team any slack either, represented here by Denis McDonough (John Hamm). The White House Chief of Staff who wants to scuttle the report to reward the CIA for killing Osama bin Laden — all the better, it’s suggested, to enhance his boss’s electability.
All the geopolitical intrigue forces Jones into the role of whistleblower — yes, that word again. With new CIA chief John Brennan (Ted Levine) on his back, the investigator enlists hot-shot lawyer Cyrus Clifford (Corey Stoll) to protect him from criminal charges that come from leaking a classified document. Said document, nearly 7,000 pages long, was released in 2014 in a severely redacted version. Burns redacts nothing here, and in lesser hands, the exposition data dump that the movie lays on audiences would be indigestible. But the writer-director, following in the steps of the best in investigative cinema (All the President’s Men, Spotlight), makes this search for a truth a thrilling detective story with real-world repercussions. Guided by the fierce, fully committed performances of Driver and Bening,The Report is a bristling reminder that truth still matters. Naïve? Maybe. But, damn, do we need it now.