By Sukhdev Sandhu in the November-December 2019 Issue
The prophetic bombast of Karl Rove hangs heavy over Scott Z. Burns’s The Report. Speaking to a New York Times journalist back in 2004, the former Senior Advisor to George W. Bush supposedly dismissed what he called “the reality-based community”—by which he meant those anachronistic sad sacks who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Warming to his theme, he reportedly continued, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Is it cynical to wonder if Rove’s cynicism turned out to be correct? The Report is a film smoggy with ghosts. It is haunted by memories of a time when the word “truth” didn’t need to be wrapped in scare quotes. When it was still possible to believe that, if the truth could be uncovered by diligent journalists, political changes would result. When Stephen Colbert could elicit laughter by roasting bumptious public figures for their lies—sorry, “truthiness.”
There’s a lie at the very heart of The Report. The “enhanced interrogation” techniques deployed by the CIA against terror suspects after 9/11 are a euphemism for—an attempt to disguise and to deny the multiple acts of—what is more baldly called torture. Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a Senate staffer tasked by his boss Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) with investigating discrepancies in the CIA’s account of what it knew and did about some of the violence meted out to Islamic suspects.
Much of this, though largely in the public domain by now, is still startling. Mock burials, use of insects, power drills to heads, arms pulled out of sockets: it’s the stuff of snuff movies, real-life versions of shilling shockers such as Hostel and The Human Centipede. As often as not, this catalog of atrocities has been linguistically cleansed. “Facial hold,”“attention grasp,”“stress positions”: the blandness of these terms belies their ferocity. “Rectal hydration” is even grosser than it sounds.
It’s startling too that the efficacy of these techniques—depicted in brief, glitchy flashbacks—was vouchsafed by contractors with next to no scientific backgrounds. Douglas Hodge and T. Ryder Smith play psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, quacks and charlatans who managed to capture millions of dollars of government funding, their inflated self-regard both a mirror and response to the macho bombast of their political overlords (who say things like, “We’ll have flies walking on Al-Qaeda’s eyeballs within weeks”). They’re portrayed, with some sardonic humor, as speaking truth for—rather than to—power.
By contrast, Jones starts out as an idealist, a coltish former Teach For America volunteer who buys a White House snow globe, endearingly dorky like Ross from Friends but with a higher GPA. His is almost the ideal research project for a hardworking twentysomething. His commitment is pure—he’s never seen with lovers, friends, or family. In a partial echo of the carceral spaces in which the terror suspects were housed, the room in which he works begins to resemble a cell—coldly strip-lit, walls covered with images of convicts, entrance and exit protected by guards, and access to materials heavily circumscribed. Jones, who works evenings and weekends, and sticks (until he doesn’t) to all the confidentiality clauses he signed at the outset, is a prisoner of his research.
Writer-director Burns, best known for his collaborations with Steven Soderbergh, among them The Informant! (2009) and Contagion (2011), cuts a path through the forests of information thrown up by this affair. (The final report—with the word “torture” redacted from its title—ran to 6,700 pages.) Driver handles the talky, wink-friendly script with flair, and the supporting actors, including Jon Hamm as Obama’s flaky Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Maura Tierney as an intelligence officer who advocates torture unapologetically, are excellent.
Burns is clear-eyed about the CIA’s structural failings (it had evidence as long ago as 1978 that torture rarely extracts useful confessions) and self-serving mendacity under successive presidential regimes. There are telling jabs at Obama’s unwillingness to push the CIA harder for fear of jeopardizing his reelection campaign in 2012, and at Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) for making false connections between torture-derived information and the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout.
For a political thriller, The Report is more sad than revelatory, more melancholy than cathartic. Jones’s work was not entirely in vain. His revelations of a cover-up, though heavily doctored, eventually were made public. But did many care? Perhaps Rove was right and The Report, honorably and impotently, can only study a reality directed by American history’s real actors.
Sukhdev Sandhu is Director of the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University