You might assume Adam Driver would know a thing or two about imperial states that are heavy on bureaucracy, having spent the last two Star Wars movies barking orders at space-fascist throwbacks the First Order. But his latest film positions him much further down the pecking order than Kylo Ren’s sulky Sith wannabe. In The Report, Driver plays Daniel Jones, the real-life investigator who in 2009 was tasked with scrutinising the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme after news reports unhelpfully dragged some shameful black site activity into the light.
At the behest of senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), Jones heads up a small research team who are basically hobbled from the outset. Barred from interviewing any of the CIA personnel or outside contractors actually involved – a restriction applied on the pretext of operational security – they are required to piece the story together by sifting through a mountain of agency emails. Nobody wants any surprises, Jones is told. He is expected to wrap everything up “in a year or so”.
Anyone with a passing familiarity with the story will know that it took considerably longer than that for Jones to complete his assignment, and that finishing the report ended up being only half the battle. Writer/director Scott Z Burns – a frequent collaborator with Steven Soderbergh – crosscuts between Jones’s painstaking progress from 2009 onwards and the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a time when the CIA was handed a remit to tame terrorism along with a blank cheque.
We witness how the enhanced interrogation programme came into being via a queasy PowerPoint pitch from Air Force veterans-turned-psychologists James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T Ryder Smith). This is essentially the origin story for the 21st century’s new vocabulary of barbarism: stress positions, insult slaps, waterboarding. Burns then shows these techniques in action via prolonged and upsetting scenes of renditioned detainees being tortured. While it can seem like everyone except Jones is keen to smooth things over and simply move on, the viewer is left in no doubt that this was state-sanctioned sadism.
Much of The Report involves Jones diligently going about his work in a dingy windowless workspace in Virginia where the high featureless walls slowly fill up with post-its of damning details. But the real world consistently seeps in. There are cameos from Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Donald Rumsfeld and other key political players via the news channels endlessly rolling in the background. We catch a glimpse of a trailer for Zero Dark Thirty. A speech by the late John McCain is used so prominently he should probably get a screen credit.
Even just hunched over a desk he remains a mesmerising screen presence
The margins are populated with excellent character actors – including Jon Hamm, Michael C Hall and Matthew Rhys – but this is predominantly a showcase for Driver. Someone clearly thinks The Report has some awards potential: it was snapped up by Amazon at Sundance in January and this cinema release makes it eligible for as many gongs as possible (it will be available to stream on Amazon Prime next month). But it is a notably restrained central performance, perhaps designed to reflect the dogged, methodical nature of its subject. The closest thing Driver gets to a big speech is an exasperated monologue about the depiction of torture on 24, the breakneck TV drama that transformed our anxieties about terrorism into high-octane entertainment. Yet even just hunched over a desk he remains a mesmerising screen presence. In the end, Jones’s report was a proper doorstop of almost 7,000 pages. But it is the solemn, soulful Driver who gives this slowburn story of anger and accountability its weight.