It’s probably worth getting this out of the way to start: As a movie, I do not care for The Report.
Then again, I’m biased; I hate these movies altogether. You know the type: The screen goes black, text dissolves onto the screen that reads, “Based on true events” or “Inspired by true events,” you spend the next two hours watching, wondering if what’s on the screen is true. And if it is true that the then-head of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez, justified the Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) program by saying that people needed to, “put on our big boy pants,” which, maybe, he did, ok, how accurate is the screenwriter’s rendering? How about when the Gina Haspel composite, Bernadette, played by Maura Tierney, says in a conference room in the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center of the proposed “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT) program, “It’s only legal if it works”?
Mind you, this isn’t an inane cradle-to-grave biopic of some long-dead entertainer. This is an honest-to-God anthropological enterprise on the CIA’s use of EITs post-9/11, a movie about real people who acted inhumanely, certainly, and likely illegally to obtain information that may or may not have saved lives. You think it matters whether Gina Haspel (the current CIA Director!) said, “It’s only legal if it works” in this context? Only if, as an enterprise, The Report promises to tell us the truth.
I’ve read and listened to quite a few Best Movies of the Decade lists over the past month. Without fail, The Social Network appears; also, without fail, some bullshit conversation or discourse ensues on the morality of its message. This is how people will learn about Facebook! They say. This movie has a responsibility to tell the truth!
That’s bullshit, that’s a lie. A movie has a responsibility to entertain, to distract. You might leave The Social Network feeling bad for Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright until you realize she’s not real and, in fact, Zuck was already dating Priscilla Chan during the years covered by the film. That might make you angry until you realize the whole thing is fiction, a dramatist’s rendering of Zuck’s college years. Certainly, there’s some truth in it, but The Social Network’s relationship to it is very different than The Report’s.
The Report cares deeply about the truth, and it should. Shit. The actual report was an attempt to catalog (as best they could) a program of torture sanctioned by the United States. How can you tell a story about in any other way? But the film falls apart under the weight of its medium. Dan Jones (Adam Driver) didn’t write a 6,700 page document with the help of three staffers, the screenwriter did that because we have to focus our attention on a few people; if the psychiatrists saved the rag they used to waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or considered auctioning it off on eBay, that’s a news story, a scoop, not a throwaway detail.
Employed here, it’s more than a detail. It’s a bias. And for a movie that goes to great pains to express its desire to be partisan or post-partisan, slant, in any form, undermines its truth.
Do we care? I think that’s a valid question, one posed by the film itself: We got what we wanted. Does it matter how that happened?
A more interesting and successful movie at least flirts with a dissenting point of view. What compelled us to torture? What toll does that take on those who pass the sentence? What the movie offers in response is curt, courteous; Corey Stoll’s lawyer Cyrus Clifford reminds us that 9/11 happened 90 minutes into the run time and people still have the feels about it, the two psychiatrists who created the SERE program fly away on a private jet joking about all that waterboarding and that saved rag, ha ha ha.
It’s a cheap trick, a chocolate covered strawberry of a narrative gimmick. We, the viewer, believe that torture is bad going into the film. The screenwriter (Scott Z. Burns, who also directs) stages dramatic conversations that support that position, which goes down sweet. Ask me, it’ll rot your teeth.
What else is there to say? I reject the premise, I feel slighted. I want the whole truth, all of it, not nine-tenths, not the bits that support the pre-disposed premise. Sign me up for the documentary, not the inspired by sold as truth.
I know Adam Driver is great. But just because his line readings will win him an Oscar doesn’t make the words any more true.