The American political movie is so multi-faceted it deserves a case study just to unpack its multitudes. Regardless of the genre it crosses with, whether it’s the gentle comedy of Mr Smith Goes To Washington, the drabness of Robert Rossen’s classic noir All The King’s Men, or the recent procedural of Steven Spielberg’s vastly underrated The Post, it has a style and a common narrative language so much so it should be considered a subgenre in itself.
It starts with a reverence for the American democratic institution; Washington DC is an inspiring place of marbled halls that our hero admires like it’s the representation of all just ideals. Those expectations are then squashed and squandered by the only imperfection of democracy – lawmakers – who Jefferson Smith, or Bob Woodward, needs to expose to keep the Great American Experience alive and pure from the claws of dishonourable man. I don’t mean to sound reductive as I appreciate it’s idealistic ambition, but mostly because, when done well, it elevates an abstract notion, like the government, to an almost frightening character. When done well the American political movie is as inspiring and subversive as a romantic drama. The Report is a good American political movie.
Directed by Scott Z. Burns, The Report follows the investigation, and aftermath, of the report on the use of torture (read Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) by the CIA after 9/11. Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) is a young go getter who wants to work in the higher echelons of the American government but is told by Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm) that he should gain experience in Intelligence services before. This leads him to meet Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Benning) and kickstart what would end up being an almost 7,000-page damning evidence of human rights abuse by a U.S. agency.
It’s a story fitting for political tension, men in suits walking and talking, slammed doors and very stern statements about the integrity of the institution, and Burns delivers all this in spades. The script spares no time to start the procedures, it wastes no words with futile character development, such is the confidence in the source material. All we know of Jones is that he doesn’t want to run for office (because he wants to make a difference, ah) and that he likes to jog around the National Mall when he needs to clear his head – everything else is what drives him, against all odds, for the greater good. And yet both Driver and the script sell Jones as the well-fleshed man he is.
Burns knows how to keep pace without giving in to too much melodrama. He rightfully lets the story speak for itself, but enhances it with some staggering visual notes. Some of the shots around DC are breathtaking, leading lines frame the characters around buildings or confined spaces like it’s Edward Hopper directing an episode of House Of Cards. In contrast the flashbacks of the torture scenes are violent, handheld, and saturated like they are shot by Steven Soderbegh (who produced this film). It’s all carefully built by a filmmakers that shows great confidence with little experience – Burns positions himself as a serious name to follow.
But it’s perhaps this overconfidence that finds the film’s shortcomings.
The respect Burns has for the subject doesn’t let him explore larger philosophical questions. Everything that happens does so in a shroud of veracity, like we’re watching an expensive dramatisation of a really good podcast. But it misses the opportunity to get away from the docudrama mantle, and make a larger open statement. At a certain point the film references Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, another film that tried to stick as close as it could to the known truth, but the difference between the two is that in the end Bigelow let’s the catharsis of its climax pass and lingers in a confused protagonist who doesn’t know where to go next. The Report spends almost two hours exposing the unjustness of the American democracy with the same surgical eye of a WSJ investigator, so it falls cheap when the final message is a romantic, almost Caprian, “as Americans we are better than this” because, evidently, they’re not.
It’s still not enough to squander all the pleasure you can take from it. The cast, especially Annette Benning, all bring their a-game, and Burns proves to be an even better director to his already enviable, repertoire. The Report is closer to All The President’s Men than Lions For Lambs – and that’s an endorsement right there.
It has all the right DNA of a good political thriller, but it’s the revelation of Scott Z. Burns that keeps me going – why has Soderbegh been hiding him from us all this time?
Annette Benning also deserves more than just a little passing mention, her Dianne Feinstein has so much depth in a single look, it’ll be a farce if the Academy forgets her.
It just needed that last lingering question to achieve greatness. In the end, a subtitle says what we already know – that no one was convicted for these crimes – the two minutes before that play it like everything was going to be fine. In an especially strong moment Feistein says she wants to live in a country where such report is released, the film should have noted that it’s better to live in a country where such report matters.