Why “The Report” is the Perfect Film for Janata Curfew Day

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Why “The Report” is the Perfect Film for Janata Curfew Day

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Midway through Scott Z Burns’ The Report, a dense but rewarding film cataloguing the missteps of the CIA’s post-9/11 “Detention and Interrogation Program” that involved torturing Al-Qaeda prisoners, the moral centre of the film is laid bare. When Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), the Senate staffer leading the investigation, expresses his impatience at the increasing unlikeliness of the “torture” report seeing the light of day, Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) asks him if he wants to be Edward Snowden. “Edward Snowden was a traitor,” she answers before Jones has a chance to offer a rejoinder. By which she means that the truth is as important as the lawful processes that it is filtered through. Neither Feinstein nor the film treats whistleblowing that comes at the cost of circumventing the system as an act of bravery; instead on more than one occasion, Burns’ underlines it as an ultimate form of cowardice.

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On his part, Adam Driver, an actor par excellence, adept at conveying a lifetime of emotion through the stillness of his face and his vacant eyes, brings a quiet vulnerability to Jones that ekes out the significance of a government’s duty toward the nation.

Amazon Prime Video

Jones follows that belief through in another scene when he refuses to leak the report to The New York Times (Matthew Rhys makes a welcome appearance as a haggard investigative journalist), even when the chances of it being published without being sullied by irrational redactions seems nil. When asked what happens if the report never comes out, Jones replies with a steely, “It means I haven’t done my job well.” It’s an idealistic position to take, especially when held up against the methods of the CIA, a body that has routinely turned having no regard for the law or jurisdiction into an adventure sport. But what The Report wants viewers to recognise is that Jones and Feinstein aren’t just after uncovering the truth of a dedicated cover-up of oversight, they’re also seeking accountability. As Feinstein and the film make amply clear, the former can’t come at the cost of the latter. This means that Burns’s screenplay (the director is making headlines at the moment for writing Contagion, the 2011 medical thriller that predicted Covid-19 in chilling detail) has the challenge of earning the viewer’s interest instead of spoon-feeding them. The subject at hand is as vast as it is terrifying. In 2005, when the CIA destroyed video recordings that documented the “enhanced interrogation” methods they deployed on Al-Qaeda suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri three years ago, Jones is tasked with leading an investigation into its contents. 

The methods in question, involve inhumane torture practices like mock burial, waterboading, stress positions, and sleep-deprivation carried out to get prisoners into a state of “learned helplessness” under the supervision of two contracted amateur psychologists. The aim was to brutalise the naked, shivering, and tied suspects to such a worthless state (in a flashback scene, they shave off the beard of a Muslim suspect to dehumanise him) that they spill out any secret intel about potential acts of terrorism. That these harsh practices didn’t work at all or yield any new information, made it all the more illegal, and by extension, gave the CIA prime reason to push it under the rug. 

But when Jones takes over, what ensues is a six-year-long meticulous labour that involves poring over pages of un-redacted CIA files in a bare, suffocating basement room to draw up a report that exactly summarises the extent of the brutalities inflicted and their repercussions. Running simultaneously is Jones’ protracted battle to make the report public amid push backs from the CIA, President Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm), and occasionally Feinstein herself. The Report travels forwards and backwards, using flashbacks to transport the viewer to the black site where the atrocities actually happened. 

The Report occasionally resembles an information dump, akin to a thorough journalistic piece of investigation.

It’s a lot to take in and Burns’ crafts the film and its screenplay with a calculated precision that doesn’t romanticise or glamourise the inherent disrespect of the proceedings. This distant gaze means that The Report occasionally resembles an information dump, akin to a thorough journalistic piece of investigation; yet like The Spotlight, the chase is always invigorating. Making it melodramatic might have actually reduced the rigour of Jones’ integrity, and Burns’ insists that the viewer derive sentimentality from one man’s unrelenting pursuit of uncovering the truth instead of seeking them through melodramatic embellishments. 

That’s probably the reason the film feels like it is shot with the camera at an arm-length’s distance from the proceedings; there’s no mention of either Jones’ childhood or his personal life, although early on in the film, he alludes to a broken relationship. Over time, as the making of the report consumes Jones to an extent where he claims “sleep gets in the way of work,” it’s a quiet indictment of what the job takes from him. On his part, Driver, an actor par excellence, adept at conveying a lifetime of emotion through the stillness of his face and his vacant eyes, brings a quiet vulnerability to Jones that ekes out the significance of a government’s duty toward the nation. The film’s closing sequence that sees Jones walk out of the Senate building after the report is finally made public is testament to Burns’ steely determination to make a movie that didn’t get lost in its theatrics. 

The Report can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

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