While Jones does get the report through its many obstacles, The Report is not a triumphant story. There’s some acknowledgement that a country allowing a thorough exposure of its crimes is a testament to that country’s greatness, but the film doesn’t really believe that. It’s hard to feel like what’s being depicted is some testament to the power of accountability, especially when prominent figures like former CIA director John Brennan (Ted Levine) enjoy current prominence as respected commentators and current CIA director Gina Haspel was confirmed despite being heavily implicated in all this. The knowledge of what happened is the sole reward, and while that’s something, it’s frustratingly insufficient. No one seized the tens of millions of dollars paid out to the hack ‘psychologists’ who used detainees as guinea pigs for a torture program they were making up as they went along. No promotions were rescinded for agents who were able to frame their activities as battle experience on the front lines.
The Report wouldn’t be near as cinematically successful as it is if it only functioned as a history lesson. There is a sense that Burns, in his first time as a feature director, was let loose to be as professorial as he needed to be, and swathes of the film do play as a well-acted and well-filmed documentary recreations. However, The Report’s authorial voice is so clear and so outraged that its clarity provides a dramatic momentum as powerful as if Jones was being tailed by CIA assassins or saboteurs. This is true even when Jones and Feinstein are having even-keeled progress reports, or when Jones finds himself needing to contact a lawyer (Corey Stoll) to calmly discuss his options during a particularly contentious period. Some of this rapt interest is surely the power of preaching to the choir, but with The Report’s constant refuting of common pro-torture arguments, it’s impossible to imagine anyone coming away from the film thinking this was the right thing to do.
The performances in The Report are ultimately what elevate it into being a great film and not just an informative one. Jones’ relentlessness and sharp intellect are embodied by Driver, and he takes care to prevent those traits from veering into arrogance or recklessness. He displays empathy when his coworkers have to pull back from this taxing project, and he picks his battles judiciously but firmly. Benning’s Feinstein is unintimidated by the likes of Brennan and Jon Hamm’s Denis McDonagh, chief of staff at the time of the report’s processing. She’s fully supportive of Jones around other people and provides her own level of pushback when it’s just the two of them, painting the portrait of a good boss who has her own, distinct set of priorities. Dozens of smaller roles are instilled with the same amount of consideration. Tim Blake Nelson plays a CIA medic on site during the interrogations who attempts to blow the whistle internally, only to be met with silence and a wracked conscience. The aforementioned psychologists, played by T. Ryder Smith and Douglas Hodge, are unimaginable dirtbags, bludgeoning people who should know better with an assertive voice and the air of knowledge which they plainly don’t have. Maura Tierney and Joanne Tucker play a pair of CIA agents who make the wrong decision every time, but instead of humility, only have their certainty of purpose hardened. Burns ensures that no part is treated as insignificant or unworthy of interrogation; if it made it into the report, it’s important.
One can’t watch The Report without thinking of Zero Dark Thirty, a film brought up in the background here and given the side-eye by Jones. The inspiration for Zero Dark Thirty’s lead, an agent at the center of blunder after blunder for a twenty-year period, may well be represented by Tierney or Tucker. Through the lens of The Report, whatever sympathy one might have for a person placed in a difficult scenario with way too much power over human beings is translated into how that person becomes a cog in a vast, systemic, self-justifying failure. A person can’t do all that for so long without elevating themselves into, at worst, someone who’ll do what it takes to get the job done. No, don’t call me a hero, I just took the hard work on my shoulders. The Report scoffs, justifiably, at such allowances, and dares its viewers to not surrender their higher brain function to fear. Get this film into high school history classes immediately. A-