Hot on the heels of the engaging satire, The Laundromat, comes The Report, also the fruit of a Steven Soderbergh/Scott Z Burns collaboration. However, both films could not be more different, one is a skittish farce, the other a serious procedural drama about CIA-sanctioned torture.
In this reasonably engaging exercise, Adam Driver plays Senate Intelligence Committee staffer Dan Jones, who is effectively taking on the CIA. His task, through which he strives doggedly through six years, is the compiling of a 6,700-page report which will on its hopeful publication date, expose the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, introduced during the presidency of President George W Bush in the wake of the September 11 attacks of 2001.
Jones is obsessive in his quest for justice and he hopes - in vain as it happens - that sanctions will be taken against CIA operatives and those contracted to work for the CIA at their so-called Black Sites where these interrogations took place. He works away obsessively and exhaustively in a subterranean facility at CIA HQ, heading a small band of dedicated colleagues. Eventually his report is published, redacted somewhat and shrunk significantly down to 525 pages, or 400 pages, as the film has it.
A single man, without ties, Jones doesn't take weekend breaks, he sleeps badly and is sometimes haunted by nightmares that recreate the footage he has seen of interrogation scenes.
Following the events of September 11, elements in the US administration turned feral in their attitude to detained suspects, as we see in flashback. The proponents for torture hide behind spurious science, self-serving mumbo-jumbo to justify water-boarding and other degrading and injurious treatments, including sleep deprivation or confining prisoners in coffins.
There is a note of panic about such retributive measures and the urgency of the situation sanctions extreme torture. The Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, or EITs programme, is driven by a paranoid quest to protect American citizens. However, the film shows en passant how individuals on the make also used it to progress their own careers, even when EITS were seen to be a dead duck and of no use in extracting information.
As Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay would have it, one official, speaking days after the September 11 attacks, stonily announces that within a fortnight insects would be crawling across the eye-balls of Al-Qaeda. You may find yourself looking away during the dramatizations of water-boarding scenes, which are presumably as realistic as they can be without traumatising the viewer.
Annette Bening is businesslike and strangely colourless as Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during Barack Obama's Presidency, while John Hamm (Mad Men) plays Denis McDonough, Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff. Feinstein stands by Dan Jones and insists on the CIA coming clean, although in the end for all her insistence, no one from the CIA is punished for what happened.
Following the publication of the report in 2014, John Brennan, then director of the CIA, insisted that the agency "did a lot of things right" at a time when there were "no easy answers." In the course of a recent interview with Brennan - who is played by Ted Levine in the film - Washington Post writer Mattathias Schwartz reviewed his performance.
"Brennan strenuously resisted admitting fault after the CIA probed into the computers of the Senate staff members who were investigating the post-9/11 torture program, " wrote Schwartz. "He gave the public a sanitized version of the truth and withheld the full one. He did things that the President wanted done but not known."
Alan J Pakula’s film All The President’s Men, released in 1976, should be the benchmark when it comes to such investigative exposés. Pakula was interested in making a tone poem of light and shadow, of silences and pauses. The director appeared to achieve the deathly hush, the sordid melancholy of human fallibility. The film's small triumph at the close - two journalists break big story - seemed somehow an afterthought in the lingering atmosphere of dark, cloying conspiracy.
Clearly you can only do that kind of thing once, so the directors of films such as The Report and Spotlight are left with the cut-and-dried approach of the TV procedural. In any case, with cinema up against it, they need mass audiences who are not necessarily looking for something slow-paced.
There are lessons in The Report for today and we may be glad of intelligent films such as this one in the future. "I think you can connect the early Oughts and the fact that Bush and Cheney and the CIA were not held accountable, to what we’re living through now, where there is no transparency and there is no accountability, and we’ve turned the tables to such a degree that suddenly the press and the truth-tellers are the bad guys," Scott Z. Burns, director and writer, recently told Deadline. "That’s terrifying to me."
Produced by Soderbergh, The Report is packed with quick-fire verbal exchanges and you better keep up. Amazon Studios thought highly enough of the film to buy it for a reported $14 million at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie is solid and engaging enough, but it is not particularly exceptional and one might say the same about Spotlight.
Both films tell it as it is, but Pakula used his experience of cinematic art to tell the story of the Watergate scandal in a different way, in clearly different times.