You know those movie or TV thrillers where the investigator has a huge whiteboard, covered with photos of suspects and arrows linking them to evidence? Well, the guy in “The Report” has an entire room of white walls covered with photos, arrows and evidence.
The whiteboard room signifies the scope of Daniel J. Jones’ investigation, as does the fact that his work spreads out over years and that it results in a nearly 7,000-page report about the CIA’s secret use of torture after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Adam Driver plays dogged, deferential Jones, who pored over any documents he could get his hands on in an attempt to show how far off the rails the CIA had gone. The other key character is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (quiet, canny Annette Bening), who keeps Jones on a short leash as she repeatedly sends him back to his basement lair, hoping to get enough evidence to satisfy both the Republicans and the Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Whiteboards? Documents? Basements? The elements of “The Report” sound like they have all the spine-tingling thrills of a Sunday school class, but the movie is scintillating because writer/director Scott Z. Burns gives his drama the feel of ’70s paranoid thrillers such as “Three Days of the Condor,” “All the President’s Men” and “The Parallax View.” Jones is constantly being confronted by shadowy strangers who know who he is and what he’s doing. Many scenes are shot through windows, as if we’re surveilling the characters. And the burbly electronic score sounds like one you’d hear in a movie where spies chase each other past Europe’s prettiest landmarks.
“The Report” is a mystery, really, and it finds compelling ways to lay out its clues, such as a timeline that keeps track of events for us. Burns also fills even the tiniest roles with recognizable actors, which means they can establish their characters quickly and we can use those familiar faces to keep the dozens of government functionaries straight.
Golden Valley native Burns’ script is subtle, trusting us to make connections, but it crackles and zings with smart, succinct lines. Having been mansplained, there’s this understated rejoinder from Feinstein, who discovered Harvey Milk’s body after he was assassinated in 1978: “I think I’m aware of the risks of public office.” There’s a sly attorney, played by Corey Stoll, who advises Jones to stop sitting on secrets: “You don’t really have a legal problem. You have a sunlight problem.” And there’s Maura Tierney as a CIA wonk who justifies torture by saying, “It’s only legal if it works.”
All of that dialogue lands because “The Report” takes the time to show us the brutal torture, establishing that what’s at stake here is the face our nation presents to the rest of the world. The torture scenes are grim but they help make the case for Jones’ efforts. So does the Washington Monument, which lurks in the background of many scenes, reminding us of the principles on which this country was founded and foreshadowing the film’s epigraph, a quotation from George Washington about punishing wrongdoers.
In the end, “The Report” is an inspiring movie because of its Capraesque, triumph-of-the-little-guy theme. Daniel J. Jones is a quietly heroic individual who worked in obscurity for years, with very little encouragement, simply because he believed the truth had to come out. And, finally, it did.