' ' Cinema Romantico: The Report

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Report

“Have you read the report?” This is what Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), a Senate staff member, asks President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm). The report to which he’s referring was a big damn deal, the largest investigative review in Senate history, a thorough reckoning with the CIA’s activities during America’s so-called War on Terror. But no, McDonough says, he hasn’t read the report because, he explains, it’s longer than the Bible. And therein lies writer/director Scott Z. Burns’s challenge and purpose, to take a report as long as the Bible and not render it merely coherent for viewers but entertaining. In that way, his task is akin to dramatizing the thoroughly un-entertaining Mueller Report, which was literally assumed by some of Hollywood’s best in June. They gave life to that massive document as a table read, however, which is a far cry from a film, and “The Report” just sort of is a moving table read – solid acting but visually inert.

Granted, some of this detachment deliberately stems from Driver’s performance. When his character is tasked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) to compile the report, she makes clear the necessity of his remaining unbiased. In these moments, Driver does not maintain a poker face, not at all, but seems to genuinely let all feeling evaporate from his face. He’s not hell bent, like Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty”, just tireless, to a fault, turning his recurring exchanges with a security guard about “Do you ever sleep, bro?” less into the responses of a burned-out workaholic than amusing recurring comedy. He’s not a cipher, exactly, more like a blank slate, which is what the drab basement office he is more or less imprisoned and its equally drab walls come to represent, a chance to dig into the information and see what comes up, letting the evidence take him to the simple if difficult truth, the altar boy for everyone’s wistful non-partisan dreams, a government employee who believes, to a fault, in government diligence

Feinstein is his partner in ferreting out war crimes, so to speak, and if Driver lets Daniel’s righteous indignation gradually flow to the top the more he uncovers until it’s practically bursting, sometimes standing in meetings and gesticulating with his hands, Bening maintains an even keel even in the face of the nigh unspeakable. It’s not so much a hardened shell from a life in politics, or something, that Bening is playing to as the need for her to be the buffer between Congress and that righteous indignation. Of course, she’s a Senator on Capitol Hill, not Hal Holbrook skulking around a parking garage, and so if there are occasional undertones of “All the President’s Men”, Burns pointedly eschews conspiracy for something more high-minded, even bringing the movie to the precipice of Pentagon Papers-ish twist a la “The Post” and then saying no. Sen. Feinstein, after all, believes in government diligence and, as she says, doesn’t care for Edward Snowden. “Citizenfour”, this isn’t.

It’s not “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) either. That’s not just me being flip. There is a scene where Daniel watches a trailer for “Zero Dark Thirty”, making the point of “The Report” as rejoinder to that criticized 2012 film explicit. And fair enough. One movie critiquing another is fine. Still, in “Zero Dark Thirty”, faulty facts or politics aside, Kathryn Bigelow proved, once again, that she’s a filmmaker while in “The Report” Scott Z. Burns mostly just proves himself a correspondent. Switching film stock between past and present to underline the stark clarity of the Daniel’s investigation and the ethical queasiness of what he’s investigating only goes so far while the most interesting visual in the movie isn’t really a visual at all – the government-employed torturers explaining their methodology for some government muckety-mucks by way of Power Point. What’s the saying about the banality of evil? “The Report” may or may not traffic in the truth more than its 2012 counterpart but as the esteemed Roger Ebert noted about his infamous run-in with Walter Cronkite, the movies are not a medium where the truth overrides aesthetic.

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