By redacting the more explanatory title “The Torture Report” into simply The Report (as illustrated in its advertising graphics), the new political thriller about abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 winds up diminishing itself.
Writer-director Scott Z. Burns is suggesting that the CIA’s ruthless enhanced interrogation techniques (waterboarding and more), as sanctioned by the Bush administration, represent generic, ubiquitous military procedure — a scandal that exposes unending U.S. government panic and incompetence.
This idea of America’s dishonor is a favorite point of progressives hoping to argue for the humanity — the moral superiority — of their own preferred policies. Thus, The Report matches the snarky journalism of Vice Media, the company that produced this film memorializing Senator Dianne Feinstein’s staff investigation on failures of military intelligence while simultaneously portraying Feinstein (Annette Bening) as a principled, humanitarian authority.
It is Feinstein who tasks ambitious political wonk Dan Jones (Adam Driver) with exploring the CIA’s wartime routines and preparing a report on its various, outsourced methods of finding information about al-Qaeda terrorist activity, how blacksite operations were conducted, and the mistreatment of prisoners. Feinstein’s report, released in 2014, says the torture yielded no useful information.
As a movie, The Report repeats the same snide perspective as Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure, but it’s less showy. Burns lacks a sense of urgency, so the movie feels like something that sat on a shelf since 2004. (Only Obama’s detached voice on a speaker phone seems fresh — his detachment is hilarious.) Its ancient history seems especially untimely given how recent events have forced the public to be perhaps even more cynical than Vice Media about the CIA and the deep state. (A subplot about Obama’s CIA head John Brennan — played by Ted Levine who was Jame Gumb in Silence of the Lambs — is a surprising inclusion made even more baffling when its revelation of obstreperous Brennan defending his agency’s covert actions goes nowhere. This view of Brennan seems stuck in a time warp.)
Filmed in nearly monochrome drabness as if Burns chose a cliché documentary visual style, The Report looks like nostalgia for that period after George W. Bush won the election when the media felt American guilt was to blame for 9/11 and so could comfortably — brazenly — call Bush stupid as if it was a matter of fact, not vitriol, and without getting clapped back.
That was, perhaps, the start of the media’s decline into incivility which explains The Report’s nostalgia for cynicism. It predictably imitates that damnable All the President’s Men formula: Jones meets secret sources in shadowy Beltway parking garages. Anxious to expose what he’s discovered as part of his governmental duty, he consults a lawyer who warns him he could go to prison, and, of course, a New York Times reporter who announces “You don’t have a legal problem; you have a sunlight problem.”
That belief in betrayal through unauthorized disclosure confirms and normalizes Vice Media doctrine; the film zips past examining whatever personal and political ethics Jones might have had. He enters government as a ready-made cynic, hungry for power and self-justification as shown when he insists that he “relocated” rather than “stole” government documents.
Jones’ dissembling should give viewers a chill when it recalls the arrogant audacity currently displayed by narcissistic political bureaucrats. But Burns’s progressive sanctimony shifts from the dread and fatigue Jones feels in his lead-walled skiff to Feinstein’s supposed probity in her sunlit office with an ethnically diverse staff. These disingenuous characterizations — the zealous youngster and the wise schoolmarm — are trite.
The tight smugness of Driver and Bening’s performances suggests that they themselves must know the film’s presumed black-and-white split between military and bureaucratic behavior is a crock. They sell the useless fantasy that hawks and liberals exercise power differently. Bening delivers Feinstein’s cliched “Stain on our values . . . never again” speech with no conviction. It’s not the big oratorical moment expected, or that every darkness-to-light movie needs.
“Oversight” and “accountability” are mentioned throughout The Report, but they’ve been redacted from this pseudo-history.