It’s never a good sign when the most dramatic scene in a movie owes its power to C-SPAN footage. That’s the case with “The Report.” It’s a based-on-fact story about the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigating the CIA’s use of torture (excuse me, “enhanced interrogation techniques”) during the George W. Bush administration. More specifically, it focuses on the all-consuming efforts of staffer Dan Jones (Adam Driver) to reveal both the illegality and ineffectiveness of the CIA program.
Part of the lack of drama is intentional. Much of “The Report” belongs to what one might call the DC-procedural tradition. The tone is consciously chilly, the acting underplayed. People sit in windowless or underlit rooms. They shuffle paper, write on white boards, click keyboards, stare at computer screens. Sometimes, as a change of pace, they debate policy or attend PowerPoint presentations. The menacingly blank facade of CIA headquarters at Langley, Va., is played for all its worth.
Stylistically, the founding film in this tradition is “All the President’s Men” (1976). So it will come as no surprise — though perhaps as a disappointment — that, yes, “The Report” includes a semi-clandestine meeting in a parking garage. This one’s between Jones and an unidentified New York Times national-security reporter (Matthew Rhys) who sure has a lot in common with James Risen (who’s thanked in the closing credits).
A sizable chunk of “The Report” does not belong to this tradition. It goes to the other extreme: torture scenes in Afghanistan and other black-ops sites. The camerawork is handheld-jittery; and the tone intense and overheated, as it should be.
There are two problems here. Instead of complementing each other — each strain serving as moral, visual, and emotional counterpoint to the other — they’re more like cognitive dissonance. That’s not good. The other problem is worse. What both strands of “The Report” share is phoniness. Neither offers a sense of this-is-really-how-it-was persuasiveness.
This isn’t necessarily a question of factuality (though it is odd that we’re told that before being hired by the Senate committee, Jones worked for the CIA — whereas in real life it was the FBI). CIA director George Tenet (Dominic Fumusa) screwed up, big time, but was he really that sweaty and furtive in private? Yes, the enhanced-interrogation program was demonstrably a failure. But were the two psychologist contractors who designed it, James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith) such patently self-aggrandizing chuckleheads? They’re presented as a very sinister version of Abbott and Costello.
This is Scott Z. Burns’s debut as a feature director. He’s primarily been a screenwriter, often for Steven Soderbergh: “Contagion” (2011), “Side Effects” (2013), earlier this fall “The Laundromat.” That background may account for what’s most impressive about “The Report.” The movie is flashback-heavy, jumping around from 2001 to 2014, and plenty of points in between. It’s also at times policy-wonk obscure, throwing out all sorts of names from deep inside old news stories (hello, Senators Saxby Chambliss and Mark Udall). But Burns’s narrative remains consistently clear. That is no small achievement.
If Burns’s screenwriting background may account for “The Report” moving along smoothly, it makes more puzzling how maladroit the dialogue is. That maladroitness has a lot to do with the lack of plausibility. “It throws the whole program under the goddam bus,” one Bush aide grumbles to another. This is not how bureaucrats and policymakers talk. It is, though, how screenwriters think they talk. Nor is it likely that lawmakers and people who work for lawmakers would fail to know the difference between going to jail (which is bad) and going to prison (which is very, very bad). And surely Jones doesn’t need to be told by his boss, “Senate staff don’t have to run for reelection. She does.”
The she in question is Dianne Feinstein. Annette Bening plays California’s senior senator with a fine blend of acuity and steeliness. At first glance, you’re tempted to think, “Hey, why is Annette Bening wearing that terrible wig?” Soon enough, you realize how persuasively she inhabits the role. As Obama White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, Jon Hamm does his suave, detached Jon Hamm thing. Tim Blake Nelson, as a CIA whistleblower, has just one scene — and electrifies it. He is the Jane Alexander equivalent here (to return to “All the President’s Men”), and that is very high praise.
Adam Driver is staking a claim to 2019. He was very funny hunting zombies in “The Dead Don’t Die." He’s getting excellent reviews for “Marriage Story," which opens here Nov. 22. He returns next month as Kylo Ren — boo, hiss — in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” Driver is a naturally recessive actor. That served him well last year, amid all the hugger-mugger of”BlacKkKlansman.” Here the recessiveness means he blends in all too well with that Langley facade.
The C-SPAN footage mentioned above shows Senator John McCain’s Dec. 9, 2014, speech on torture and the committee report. “This question isn’t about our enemies," McCain says. "It’s about us.” In revisiting that question and putting it in human terms, “The Report” does a signal service. In muddling and reducing that question, it loses the signal for the noise.
Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns. Starring Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Tim Blake Nelson. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 119 minutes. R (some scenes of inhumane treatment and torture, and language).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.