Adam Driver could make a phone book crackle like Shakespeare — so imagine what he does with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,000-page report on CIA torture practices following 9/11.
The Report, which Amazon Studios acquired out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival for release later this year, is a high-voltage docudrama drawn by such journalistic standards that scenes feel like pages torn from a New York Times exposé. Writer-director Scott Z. Burns is Steven Soderbergh’s go-to screenwriter for films like Contagion and Side Effects, and his sense for operation management is essential to recounting an inquiry that took five years, $40 million, and David-vs.-Goliath might to accomplish.
Though the film’s early, bricklaying moments are dangerously dry, The Report reaches the stratosphere of All the President’s Men and Spotlight with Driver’s help. When facts roar out of the actor’s mouth, the investigation intensifies into damnation. It’s riveting, shocking, and downright cathartic.
Driver plays Daniel Jones, the Senate staffer tasked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, on perfect pitch) to crack open the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program and figure out exactly why, in 2005, America’s intelligence branch destroyed nearly 100 tapes depicting what were then called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Feinstein’s one mandate to Jones: Leave emotion at the door. To meet the nonpartisan wishes of both Democrats and Republicans sitting on the committee, objectivity must b of the utmost importance. But as Jones uncovers more corner-cutting, more abuse, more cover-ups, it becomes clear that surfacing the truth means weathering a bipartisan storm that would prefer the United States move on.
“Dan!” (a name Feinstein delivers like a swear word) is laser-focused and computational without forsaking people skills. Mimicking the researcher might be Adam Driver at his most Adam Driver-y, a certain note of blankness being the actor’s unmatchable skill. His breakout roles in Frances Ha and HBO’s Girls offered such pure, “mumblecore” naturalism that he grounded the heightened world around him. Kylo Ren, Star Wars’ most brooding villain, allows Driver’s signature cool-headed demeanor to boil over with Sith-ignited rage. His Oscar-nominated work in BlacKkKlansman starts snappier when he’s in no-bullshit detective mode, then draws inward when he’s undercover in the Ku Klux Klan.
Daniel Jones keeps Driver on the straight and narrow once again. Sporting a buttoned-up Capitol Hill makeover, the statistical sleuth spends a large chunk of The Report shuffling papers, staring into a computer screen, soaking up every word of his sources, and sitting Feinstein down to recount the latest horrible incident discovered in Guantanamo Bay records. Without his enunciation, the audience would never be able to track the history, and without a devoted sense of purpose, the dialogue wouldn’t be nearly as thrilling.
Burns punctuates Driver’s dialogue-heavy scenes with flashbacks that indict members of the CIA and Bush administration left and right. The Report takes us into a war room as senior members of the U.S. Intelligence Community point fingers over the Sept. 11 attacks; travels underground to the detainment centers in which two psychologists with little interrogation background deploy newfangled, psyche-shattering techniques like “walling” and waterboarding on suspected terrorists; and accompanies Gina Haspel proxy (played with ice-cold, patriotic enmity by Maura Tierney) as she barks managerial reminders to colleagues like “it’s only illegal if we don’t get anything!” These maddening windows to the past, shot with garish lighting and handheld cameras, often veer into Veep-like chaos. You want to laugh — do these people know what they’re doing? — but then you realize this actually happened.
The Report will infuriate the audience, as the real investigation clearly infuriated Daniel Jones over his five years locked in an off-site basement. The revelations of the CIA’s behind-closed-doors, at-all-costs behavior, and the bureaucracy faced after the report is complete, from both Republican senators and the Obama White House, chips away at the researcher’s soul — and Driver’s composure along with it. Dan can recount every second of every day of every month of every year of torture. He knows who’s lying. He can see the blood on America’s hands. Driver bellows the findings with agitation and fury, and it’s some of the most watchable fire-spitting since The Social Network.
Burns knows that back in 2014, his audience only read one or two headlines about the torture report before scrolling onto the next item in the feed. But the implications of Jones’ work, the film argues, can’t be overlooked (after all, Gina Haspel graduated from named participant of the “enhanced interrogation” program to CIA director in the Trump administration). History casts a long shadow — Burns even finds room to drag 24 and Zero Dark Thirty — and hiring Adam Driver to convey that information is a magnetic decision, turning an AP U.S. History lesson into Oscar-worthy oration. By the end of the The Report, you want to scream. Driver’s commanding grace saves your vocal cords for future use.