Daniel Jones fought the law and the law won.
Scott Z. Burns’ real-life thriller “The Report,” which screened at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, is based on the true story of staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who’s assigned by his boss Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) to lead an investigation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, created after 9/11. Jones heads a committee of six, half of which drops out pretty promptly, that meets in an office under high security to pore through classified documents about torture.
Jones, predictably, becomes obsessed with the work. There’s a scene of Driver in this office that’s reminiscent of the Pepe Silvia scene from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”—papers and scribbled notes are tacked to the wall, and theories are scrawled onto dry-erase boards. It’s a physical representation of Jones’ descent into madness with writing and presenting this report.
When one of his coworkers tells Jones she’s leaving the job right before Thanksgiving, Jones remarks that she’ll have several more months to work. The other coworker corrects him: “Dan, it’s November.” This is a man so engrossed in his work that he doesn’t know what day it is. How could you not root for him?
Feinstein warns Jones not to become emotionally attached to the work, so of course he does. One of the crucial points of the film is when Feinstein snaps at Jones, “Do you work for the report, or do you work for me?”
The answer, obviously, is not Feinstein. Burns does a fantastic job of showing the audience nothing about Jones’ personal life at all. There are no cutaway scenes of Jones relaxing at home or doing anything besides working; twice, he leaves the Hill for a run, but both times he interacts with people from work. At the very beginning of the film, Jones admits to Corey Stoll’s character that he was in a relationship at first, but he wasn’t a very good partner. That’s all we get. Jones lives and breathes that report, which gets the audience invested in its success.
Since this is a true story, there’s no spoiler alert: The report is released, and nothing happens. None of the CIA officials are punished—in fact, snarks the footnote message, one of them is even promoted. It’s the equivalent of a gut-punch to see how hard Jones has worked on this absolute beast of a report, and that nothing happens.
The futility of this film is evident throughout. Even in the beginning, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, two government officials who aren’t immediately identified (more on that later) are angry that their warnings to Bush and Cheney apparently fell on deaf ears. The film begins in the Bush administration and ends in the Obama administration, and the distrust of the government, particularly the CIA, is evident through both presidents. That theme is hammered home with a dopey psychologist who heads up the CIA’s torture program, which is the most comedic relief the film allows. Even then, it’s not funny because this is real life. It all feels a little hopeless at times, which, obviously, is even more prescient under this administration.
Burns seems to take for granted the audience’s knowledge of the details of this situation surrounding this report. (To choose this film to screen at a university festival, some of whose students were infants when 9/11 happened, is a bit of an odd choice.) One of the major characters, Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm), is not fully identified and appears well before he actually became the Chief of Staff in 2013. Jones visits McDonough before he ever takes the Senate job, and it’s not clear what McDonough’s role was then.
So, fine, most of the government officials aren’t actually identified. They also don’t look like who they’re supposed to. That’s a trend with this film. Jon Hamm looks nothing like Denis McDonough. Adam Driver looks nothing like Daniel Jones. Both those actors are almost too unique-looking to portray their characters. (One absolutely delightful casting choice was Tim Blake Nelson, of “O Brother Where Art Thou” fame, playing an ex-CIA informant who corners Jones at his car with some juicy gossip. You almost expect him to break out into song.)
Even still, it’s a film that’s absolutely worth seeing. Be warned, though: it earns its R rating for vivid depictions of torture, and that’s pretty upsetting if you don’t know to expect a waterboarding scene.