The simple and easy assessment of Amazon Studios’ new docudrama The Report would be, “There go those darned Hollywood liberals again, spinning recent history so that captured al-Qaeda combatants are the victims, the Central Intelligence Agency is the villain, and a crusading, obscure Senate staffer is the hero.”
But there’s actually a lot at work in this movie, some surprises, and signs that the creators either never wanted to or quickly realized they couldn’t tell a paint-by-numbers morality tale. Trump fans should watch it just to see Ted Levine playing former CIA director John Brennan as a slippery, arrogant villain.
We’ve seen this kind of Washington thriller lots of times before, usually not done as well: the scenes of the hero jogging through Washington monuments, the quick flashes of ominous terms on documents, the banging gavels of hearings, the secret meetings in parking garages. And to an extent, The Report plays to type: It focuses on an idealistic young staffer, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) — who has discovered the kind of deeply hidden secret that could end careers and shake the government to its core — and on all the obstacles that “the system” throws at him in an effort to keep that secret hidden.
Except the real-life episode on which The Report is based doesn’t make for such a neat fictional narrative. There’s the little nagging irony that the CIA torture report referred to in the title . . . really didn’t end careers and shake the government to its core! Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee released it, the denunciations and rebukes came mostly from the usual suspects, and life went on. No one was fired, no one went to jail, and at least some of the program’s strongest advocates, such as former counterterrorism-operations chief Jose Rodriguez, still adamantly insist that the program was justified, necessary, and effective.
Further complicating things is the fact that many of the Democrats involved didn’t acquit themselves admirably, and it’s to writer–director Scott Z. Burns’s credit that he isn’t afraid to point that out. Jon Hamm plays Obama’s White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, as the amiable embodiment of moral compromise. A key turning point comes when Eric Holder’s Department of Justice completes its own investigation of the allegations of torture . . . and then chooses not to prosecute anyone.
Obama never appears in the film, but an impersonator does his voice on a speakerphone in one scene, where he gently brushes off Feinstein’s concerns shortly after the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The president is polite but noncommittal, and after the call, Feinstein leaves the room grumbling.
“What just happened?” Driver’s Jones demands in incredulous confusion.
“The CIA just got Obama reelected,” another Feinstein aide declares.
That is rich, top-of-the-line, gourmet cynicism.
For a Washington thriller that lapses into a lot of the genre’s familiar tropes and clichés — the protagonist even has a vast wall of photos and documents and sticky notes to demonstrate his lengthy, obsessive investigation — The Report is really well done. The dogged, uncompromising protagonist, Senate Intelligence Committee staffer Jones, could easily have become annoying in the hands of a less skilled actor than Adam Driver. But Driver figured out just how far to push Jones’s fast-speaking diatribes and eye twitches, leaving the audience wondering if maybe he really has lost all perspective as his opponents claim. Plus, he actually looks like one of those anonymous Hill wonks trudging to work in his suit with a bag full of documents.
Those who miss the FX spy drama The Americans will enjoy Matthew Rhys popping up in secret meetings as a New York Times reporter, and the film is full of such familiar faces in small roles. Maura Tierney appears as a CIA counterterrorism officer, Michael C. Hall as an agency boss, Jennifer Morrison as a CIA lawyer, Cory Stoll as a skeptical lawyer. Longtime friend to National Review John Yoo is played by Pun Bandhu in one short scene.
And then there’s the movie’s most flattering casting. Annette Bening is 61 and still gorgeous. Dianne Feinstein is 86 and . . . not as gorgeous as Annette Bening. (There’s no shame in that, of course.) The Report tries to set up a bit of contrived drama with a few scenes that make it appear that Feinstein is tempted to throw her staffer under the bus out of political expediency, but . . . come on. Even if the audience somehow forgot Feinstein’s touting the release of the real-life report, she’s got the second-biggest role in the movie and she’s being played by Bening. She’s not going to turn out to be the villain.
Through Driver’s Jones and Bening’s Feinstein, The Report lays out its arguments against the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program in a pretty convincing way. Noting the argument from White House lawyers that the interrogation methods the program sanctioned are justified and legal if they work and that no other option would generate the same results, they contend the inverse, that the methods are unjustified and illegal if they do not work. They argue that every true piece of information obtained during the sessions had already been discovered through other methods, and that the prisoners would make things up in order to end the sessions. They depict other experienced interrogators as fuming that building rapport with the detainees (and occasional tricking them, as when one suspect is told his home had been wiretapped) generates far more useful results. They depict the CIA growing irritated with psychologists and waterboarding advocates Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell when the methods fail to generate useful information.
Of course, it’s worth noting that the case against the program is not perfect. One of the good lines attributed to Feinstein — “If this works so well, why did they have to do it 183 times?” — is a bit misleading. Imprisoned jihadists Khalid Sheik Mohammed told the International Red Cross he was waterboarded on five occasions; 183 is the total number of times water was poured over his face. What’s more, the film occasionally misrepresents the evolution of cultural thinking on the program over the years following 9/11. The most discussed War on Terror–focused pop-culture offering during the Bush years, 24, gets name-checked, with Jones mentioning protagonist Jack Bauer’s penchant for beating answers out of terrorists and sighing, “It doesn’t work that way.” But it’s worth remembering that by season seven, the creators of 24 had Bauer being hauled before the U.S. Senate, and seeming to speak directly to the audience about the complicated morality of his actions:
FBI Agent: I just wanted to tell you what they’re making you go through at that Senate hearing, it’s wrong.
Bauer: No, it’s not. It is better that everything comes out in the open. We’ve done so many secret things over the years in the name of protecting this country we’ve created two worlds — ours and the people we promise to protect. They deserve to know the truth. Then they can decide how far they want to let us go.
Still, the anti-torture argument is a persuasive one. You can simultaneously believe that Khalid Sheik Mohammad is the scum of the earth and that there are certain lines the government United States shouldn’t cross regardless of the circumstances. We presumably wouldn’t bring back medieval methods like the rack, the iron maiden, or thumbscrews, even if we thought they might work. And even the most vehemently hawkish conservative should recognize that a program that allows federal employees to secretly inflict physical harm on other human beings, no matter how evil, is ripe for abuse.
So why did the report at the heart of The Report have so few consequences?
Well, as unsavory as our treatment of terrorist detainees after 9/11 may sometimes have been, it’s worth recalling what a huge effect the attacks of that day had on America, and on the mindset of those charged with governing it. At one point, when a CIA medical officer objects to the enhanced-interrogation methods, Tierney’s character spits back with vehemence, “We’re not going to get beat again,” and you can be sure her real-life counterparts in the CIA really felt that way. In the days, weeks, and months after the 9/11 attacks, the American people said loudly and clearly that such a calamity could never be allowed to happen again, period. It’s hard to sustain rage at CIA employees who truly believed that they were doing what needed to be done to meet that demand, however misguided their belief may have been.