Calibrated with rare edge-of-your-seat pragmatism, Scott Z. Burns’ must-see procedural “The Report” diligently abides by the logical proposition that no end justifies premeditated immoral means as it scrutinizes how the CIA succumbed to post-9/11 paranoia and authorized sadistic abuses in the name of freedom.
Burns, best known as the screenwriter behind eclectic titles such as “The Informant!” or “Contagion,” assembles an engrossing tribute to selfless and thankless heroism from United States Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones’ account that materialized from his five-year probe into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. Equipped with the ideal restraint for the stoic part, Adam Driver personifies Jones as his personal stance mutates from measured idealism to cynical determination.
A firm Sen. Dianne Feinstein (an awards-worthy Annette Bening) assigns the perspicacious Jones to lead the Senate Intelligence Committee in evaluating the implementation of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques — a series of vicious tactics devised by a pair of psychologists later exposed as charlatans — on detainees dubiously linked to Al Qaeda.
Rooted in the dehumanization of those rationalized as the enemy, the practices effectively betrayed the very values those who legitimized them swore to protect. Righteous as the intent of an operation may stand, its relationship to legality should have never changed.
“It’s only legal if it works,” utters agent Bernadette (Maura Tierney) in the yellow-tinged flashbacks to the early 2000s black sites where the CIA-sanctioned torture euphemized as “learned helplessness,” yielding insubstantial information, was perpetrated against nearly 200 prisoners — one of whom was waterboarded 183 times.
The levelheaded thriller expertly circulates between the geometrically precise edifices that house Jones’ laborious investigation (which took much longer because no one at the CIA would agree to talk to him), and the hard-to-stomach images of physical and psychological torment. Burns contrasts the theoretical findings with their practical application for gut-wrenching effect, and even sneaks in a dig at Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” a production criticized for enshrining the supposed efficiency of EITs.
Driver’s Jones is shot from behind a computer screen, perched inconspicuously in the background with an impenetrable expression observing how those in the foreground discredit or uplift his exhaustive inquiry, or rushing from his dungeon-like workspace to engage decision-makers. There’s an air of near anonymity about him that informs how cinematographer Eigil Bryld (who fittingly worked on “House of Cards”) captures his lanky figure. Rack focus shots abound to visually mimic the blurry ethics of classified knowledge.
Sharply concentrated on the completion of the text and the uphill legislative crusade that ensues to release it, Burns refrains from prying into Jones’ personal affairs — probably also motivated by security concerns — and only depicts him in public or official spaces. No traces of a family, significant others, or a past before 2003. It’s a movie short on pronounced pathos that stirs one’s indignation based more on a matter of principle than empathy: Even those suspected of the most abhorrent acts must be granted due process.
When accountability becomes conditional to results tyranny festers, argues Feinstein via the muted resolve of Bening’s uncanny resemblance and dignified turn. In a tête-à-tête with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (a deceivingly wide-eyed Jon Hamm), the California senator graciously maintains her unwavering position in favor of stronger oversight. Jones’ report is a first step toward that objective.
Just like Burns permits Driver’s character limited outbursts of subdued fury to humanize him, the writer-director makes note of Feinstein’s disdain for Edward Snowden. Her vilification of whistleblowers reminds us she remains part of an establishment that’s prone to obscure and manipulate facts under the pretense of a safer homeland. Not by choice but cornered by the powers that be, Jones occupies an ambivalent position somewhere between loyalist and a traitor.
Faced with the nadir of their campaign for transparency, Feinstein characterizes the 5,000-page document as an “enduring history” with intrinsic value independent from its publication or the redactions inflicted on it by those fearful of its contents being unleashed. In the same manner, cinema holds the power to immortalize or debunk prescribed narratives through intellectually elucidating works like “The Report,” because as perturbing as the findings of a country looking at itself in a smudged mirror may be, the assertion that the truth must prevail is what’s truly patriotic.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles; available Nov. 29 on Amazon Prime