An indictment of bureaucracy at an acute level, The Report is the recipient of a lot of buzz online, largely owing to its high-profile cast and imminent Netflix release. Featuring Annette Bening (in a successful run, she’s already appeared in Hope Gap so far during the London Film Festival), Jon Hamm, and Adam Driver, the story centers on Senate staffer Daniel Jones between 2007-2012.
He discovers that the CIA have been responsible for using torture methods — what they’ve deemed ‘reverse-engineering methods to encourage compliance’— on suspected terrorists post-9/11. Although the issue has been swept under the rug and a paper trail at least has been completely destroyed by the CIA, Jones makes it his mission to uncover the truth and release it to the public.
During the European premiere, director Scott Z. Burns, producer Jennifer Fox, much of the cast and senate worker Daniel Jones himself were present to reiterate what an important topic the film covers and how the film will hopefully position itself as a vehicle to encourage greater transparency in government.
Director: Scott Z. Burns
Release date: January 26, 2019 (Sundance); October 5, 2019 (LFF)
Jones begins the story as an ambitious and optimistic individual seeking a prestigious work placement with Denis McDonough (Hamm). Although he’s turned away due to lack of experience, he soon proves himself by gaining a position as a staffer at the Senate. It’s here that he uncovers gaps in the government’ post-9/11 narrative. Cue flashbacks, and we begin to understand the context of his suspicions.
The flagrant double standards of the CIA and terrorists are difficult to justify, and from the outset of Jones’ investigation we see them using as cold-blooded methods as Powerpoint presentations to brief staff on the ways they might get information through torture. When a medic questions whether it’s ethical to torture, harm, even murder detainees, the CIA counter-fire: “How about 9/11? Was that justified?” The value of human life is tested and the CIA become the real terrorists. It’s no wonder they’ve been so protective of their evidence. Jones reveals later that documents on the CIA database had a tendency to ‘go missing’ and in order to hold onto his conviction, he is forced to work around the law.
Senator of California Diane Feinstein (Bening) oversees Jones throughout his work, but it’s clear there’s a conflict of interest with the affairs of state and the personal mission Jones has undertaken. Colleagues criticise Jones for becoming too emotionally involved with the case, yet he persists. It’s this determination that helps him to move forwards even when others quit the case or become too burdened to continue.
Something that came up in the following Q&A is that there’s a lack of footage showing Jones at home, winding down after work, as if it’s all-consuming. This was a conscious decision on Burns’ part, as he wanted to direct the film in a way that kept Jones’ central focus on the case. Several times he appears to be working late into the night or early in the morning, colleagues questioning whether he’s slept in a crumpled suit from the day before— he’s unable to get the case out of his head.
The non-linear storytelling was an effective way of positioning the characters and giving a sense of the time it took to complete the project. I enjoyed the verisimilitude of the picture and the specific coverage of McCain and allusions to Obama and his policy were important aspects of the feature.
What fascinated me about the film was its preoccupation with semantics. Vocabulary comes under scrutiny to an obsessive degree. It’s the difference between deeming someone a criminal or a hero. Lawyers tackle wording in the Geneva Convention, indicating that their methods, while not technically illegal, border so closely on inhumane that the wording doesn’t seem to matter.
If I could offer criticism, I would say that the film became so absorbed in its purpose to expose the CIA that it left little room for debate. The polarisation of the CIA and FBI as effectively undertaking criminal behaviour is consciously stylised that way — but as any documentary maker will be aware, the film’s truth isn’t everyone’s truth. In effect, although we’re aligned strongly with Jones’ point of view and it’s my opinion that he’s right, the story is unevenly balanced. That’s the difference between a documentary and a narrative, where a narrative is allowed to make its audience aware of its political bias.
In the Q&A after the screening, a question was proposed about the heavy nature of the film and what the actors do to look after themselves during this time. While they admitted the importance of taking care of their physical and mental wellbeing during the shoot, what made their subject more compelling was that it had happened in real life just years earlier.
Daniel Jones, the real-life Senate staffer at the centre of the film, was present to take questions and to talk about accountability in the US government. There’s no doubt that his extensive work on the project was important — it must have been incredible frustrating to work on the project for five years and to face the possibility of not having it published.
As observed in the Q&A, there is already a rich landscape of political thrillers in the US film industry. From the numerous Netflix serialised releases to films such as The Post and any number of others released in recent years, it’s easy to feel that the market is already oversaturated with our appetite for terse, dry drama. But what distinguished The Report from others is the proximity it has to the subject. Having consulted closely with Jones on the subject, the filmmakers have created an important work that brings to light a corrupt government.
The Report seems to suggest that data and knowledge should be democratised — and in a way, the simultaneous theatrical and streaming release should achieve just that. The Report will release on Netflix on November 15.