Thursday 5 December 2019

Pageturner: "The Report"

The Report is as good and as sexy a film as anybody could make about the business of writing government papers. The smartest move writer-director Scott Z. Burns made in preproduction was to cast Adam Driver, arguably the most compelling of contemporary actors, to play Daniel Jones, the upright staffer hired to compile the Senate Intelligence Committee's study into the CIA's response to the September 11 terror attacks. Driver brings a brisk, rigorous intelligence of his own to a dry, rather thankless day job: sifting through hundreds of thousands of emails in a striplit, heavily secured bunker in the bowels of the Agency's Virginia headquarters, it was Jones who first confirmed what many had feared in the first years of this century, namely that the US had deployed torture on prisoners, albeit under the euphemistic rebranding of "enhanced interrogation". This Amazon-backed movie thus overlaps with the very fine Amazon-supported miniseries The Looming Tower, doublechecking the American system of checks and balances, and attempting, as the Committee was with Jones's report, to hold the powers-that-be to account. The flashbacks sparked by our hero's furious memo-waving allow those viewers who've seen both series and film to contrast Fajer al-Kaisi's reading of the CIA agent Ali Soufan (in Burns's film) against Tahar Rahim's (in the show), and Dominic Fumusa's incarnation of Agency chief George Tenet (here) against Alec Baldwin's (there). Everybody else will find plenty to wrestle with, not least the irony of Amazon, a company known for its, let's say, sketchy record on worker rights, suddenly positioning itself as America's moral compass.

We know almost everything Jones uncovered going in, but - as in the Best Picture-winning Spotlight, one obvious precedent - the drama resides in how he got this story out. Burns - who looks to have inherited a nervy restlessness from his long-time collaborator Steven Soderbergh - does himself and us a favour by moving that story around; he refuses to get bogged down in that bunker, and shuffles his players as well as he does the many pieces of paper involved. Crucial to The Report is the rapidly shifting political context: Jones assembled his original 7,000-page document over six years, finding the task marginally easier under the Obama administration that it would have been under Dubya's, but tougher to complete and publish once the Democrats lost control of the Senate. The movie cuts between Jones' efforts to piece together a comprehensive account of how the rulebooks were torn up - crossing paths with several competing narratives, including the ambivalent Zero Dark Thirty and the straightforwardly gung-ho 24 - and flashbacks, shot in sickly yellows and greens that fair scream "moral malaise", in which illustrious performers in suits sit around trying to find new ways of weaselling out of calling torture what it was, while their unshaven underlings subject detainees to all-night Marilyn Manson listening parties. Occasionally, a party from one world - such as Tim Blake Nelson as a whistleblowing waterboarder - will show up in the other, but Burns establishes a clear divide. On one side, civilised America, as represented by Driver and Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein, the Senator overseeing the report; on the other, America the barbarous.

The Report is at its most interesting in showing the effect this discovery process had on Jones, who's not quite the one-note crusading hero we might expect to find attached to a story such as this. Instead, Burns introduces us to a rather placid believer in truth, justice and the American way who, through lack of sleep and sunlight and exposure to some horrific facts, succumbs to a mania that threatens the sober, objective tone the report demands; he submits to a milder version of the tortures his country had inflicted on others. When a colleague announces she's leaving her post at Thanksgiving, Jones appears not to know whether that's days or months away; like those detainees blasted with bright lights and white noise, his entire sense of time has been scrambled. For America to enter a new dark age, the film suggests, it would only require a few good men and women to lose their bearings. To some degree, The Report is limited to scenes in which those men and women argue over the words printed on sides of A4, surrogates for a constitution being redrafted or shredded behind closed doors: arguably, it never develops beyond an early exchange Jones has with a wary CIA wonk ("Paper has a way of getting people into trouble" versus "Paper's how we keep track of laws"). Yet that's the very essence of democracy, and Burns can use Driver's singular rhythms - the way the actor can seem to sleepwalk through a sentence, then cut himself off and redirect - to dramatise how not just this conscience but an entire country was awakened to the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in America's name. Jones still has to suffer the torture - familiar to any writer - of seeing his magnum opus suffer death by a thousand redactions, but enough of his labours snuck through for this story to remain salutary and cautionary. This unusually smart drama shows us what happens to democracy when a citizenry fails to pay full and proper attention. The Report merits that, at the very least.

The Report is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Amazon Prime.

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