With a name like Daniel Jones, he was almost bound to be a hard-working, almost-anonymous, behind-the-scenes civil servant, wasn’t he? The Report, a new film from Scott Z. Burns, a filmmaker know for his writing collaborations with Steven Soderbergh, focuses on Jones at work as he combs through millions of pages of CIA communications to assemble the agency’s torture program during the Bush administration. The Report is a procedural, like All the President’s Men, Spotlight, and The Post. It consists mainly of scenes of people talking to one another about things they have read. There are committee meetings. Occasionally senators give speeches, but even those are delivered without false gravitas. The Report is as matter-of-fact as can be.
This is a strength of the film. Rather than delving into the personal life of these men and women, the movie stays focused on their work and the professionalism required to bring something so monumental to light. It’s like watching someone pick a lock. The lock just happens to be the American bureaucracy. And in a time when this government “by the people and for the people” seems so locked up, it’s especially heartening to see something humble and penitent and good accomplished by someone as ordinary as Daniel Jones, just one of those people whom the government is by and for, just like you and me, but with perhaps a more developed conscience.
That’s not to suggest that the film is entirely without affecting moments. The Report also shows the torturing of prisoners. These scenes are as ugly as they’ve ever been in any film made on this subject, but distressingly, The Report also shows the banal board room conversations that let to that interrogation program. We want to see ourselves as Dan Jones. We must also see ourselves in the CIA middle managers who approved the program in the first place. When we let our fear control is, be that fear of terrorist attack or fear of losing our jobs, we can make decisions that dehumanize both others and ourselves.
The Report is thoroughly engrossing. It’s the kind of movie that makes you forget where you are for a couple of hours. It’s intelligent but clear, and it resists grandstanding. Adam Driver is predictably great in the lead role. He is, himself, a veteran of the War on Terror. He enlisted in the Marines immediately after 9/11 and served for two years. I may be imagining it, but I thought I could detect an extra degree of authenticity in his performance here, as if embodying Dan Jones was a way to lament the terrible things some Americans were doing while he was risking his life for their safety, a kind of repatriation of his heart, finding some good in this country to believe in again in the life and work of Dan Jones. I’m probably projecting. Still, hope is hope, and we need it in these contentious times when the good seems so elusive.