Scott Z. Burns' Film ‘The Report’ Searches for Truth in Redaction

In "The Report", director Scott z. Burns shows us how to remove the unnecessary in order to allow the narrative to speak its truth

Nov 13, 2019 at 11:13 am
click to enlarge Adam Driver in "The Report" - Atsushi Nishijima
Atsushi Nishijima
Adam Driver in "The Report"

On the heels of my screening of The Report at the Toronto International Film Festival, I zeroed in on the presence and performance of Annette Bening as California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who tasked her ambitious staffer Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) to investigate the CIA’s post-9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program. It was a luxury to consider certain artistic merits of the work over the trickier aspects of its thorny subject matter.

Of course, the actual release date now makes me wonder if a film like this benefits from being released during the impeachment proceedings the government currently finds itself embroiled in? Does it matter that we live in a period when news reporting and fact-checking work overtime to keep up with the less than truthful statements spewing forth from the executive branch?

Dramatic license most likely was taken by writer-director Scott Z. Burns (screenwriter for The Informant!, Side Effects and The Laundromat), but what is fascinating is how Burns sticks so closely to the narrative’s political details that he refuses to step away and provide the audience with glimpses into the lives of these characters. 

We never see how they manage to deal with the heavy burden of the investigation in their private encounters. Most filmmakers would create parallels illustrating how uncovering secrets leads the investigators to hide what they are doing from those closest to them, making them no better than the morally compromised figures in their sights.

Not pursuing this path places great responsibility on the shoulders of The Report’s lead, but Driver is more than up to the task. In fact, his Jones is less self-righteous in his single-minded focus because we don’t have any access to what he does on his own (possibly because he does nothing but live in this investigation). He becomes the ideal embodiment of truth, justice and the American Way; when he is confronted with having to detour outside the strict confines of the rules of order to expose what is happening behind the scenes, we come to appreciate the toll it exerts on him.

By way of contrast, the film offers up the contractors who develop the Detention and Interrogation Program as innately compromised souls gleefully making things up as they go along without regard for right or wrong. These men have no sense or sensibilities to guide their decisions or actions, which begs the question: How/why can such men be enlisted to serve the country?

Service is always namechecked as an honor binding those who take oaths, whether for the military or elected officials. Everyone pledges allegiance and fidelity to high standards and codes of conduct, but what we see on the news and in their statements after some shady dealings is that they somehow imagined that they could cross their fingers and be protected from always serving truth and justice, to the point that the exceptions started to become the rules.

This is what makes Driver’s Jones such a meaningful character (and a true American hero) in this story; he serves as the person who holds everyone accountable to those ideals and oaths. He dedicates himself and lives by the truth, even when it exerts the kind of pressure that forces others to bend or break. We see him go toe-to-toe with Bening’s Feinstein, reminding her of her own obligation to not just uncover the truth, but also to give it a voice.    

Redaction, as we’ve come to know it in the political world, is about editing documents for legal or security purposes. Oftentimes, the final product is empty and useless, completely stripped of context or the necessary elements constituting truth and justice. As a writer-director working hand-in-hand with Driver, Burns shows us how to remove the unnecessary in order to allow the narrative to speak its truth.

It is difficult to imagine who is providing this service to the American people and our presumed ideals at this particular moment. Partisan politics has advanced significantly since the period detailed in The Report, leading average Americans (especially those not as invested in sussing out the truth from the opinions being reported as facts on both sides) with the notion that there may no longer be anyone like Daniel J. Jones on the front lines. (Opens Nov. 15) (R) Grade: A