Sundance has always been a hot spot for politically conscious films, works that often reflect the liberal worldview of the majority of the artistic community and the festival founders. As filmmakers are starting to peel back the curtain of history and tell some of the lesser known stories about the state of the country after 9/11, one can expect more and more films like a pair of premieres from this year that point fingers at amoral and arguably illegal actions by international powers. Both shine lights into interesting chapters of recent history, but only one really works as entertainment as well.
One of the best films of Sundance 2019 is Scott Z. Burns’ “The Report,” a government procedural about government-sanctioned torture in the ‘00s. With a star-studded, perfectly-cast ensemble, the latest work from the writer of "The Informant!" and "Side Effects" has drawn deserving comparisons to “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight,” and it’s a work that reminds one how riveting this kind of film can be. With razor-sharp dialogue and a perfect cast, “The Report” hums, clicking from scene to scene and building a righteous fury over what powerful people in the U.S. government did, and how they tried to cover it up.
Dan Jones (Adam Driver) is given a horrendous assignment. It's one that many people hope fails. As a character tells him late in the film, "They asked you to build a boat, but they had no intention of sailing it." He has to lead the senate investigation into the development and implementation of the EIT (Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) Program after 9/11. Although he faces hurdles throughout the investigation, Jones becomes obsessed with figuring exactly who knew what and when they knew it in regard to torture black sites, techniques like waterboarding and the campaign of misinformation that led people to believe that these techniques worked, with some people out there still believing they even led to the capture of Bin Laden (and the film directly calls out "Zero Dark Thirty" for feeding that bullshit narrative). “The Report” deftly moves back and forth in time as Jones investigates the torture of prisoner after prisoner, using CIA communications and documents to produce what would become known as “The Torture Report.” And then he faces his biggest fight in trying to get the information he’s uncovered to the American public.
Driver headlines this amazing ensemble of familiar faces. Annette Bening will get a lot of attention for her take on Dianne Feinstein, a woman conflicted between revealing the truths uncovered by Jones while also trying to remain nonpartisan. Most of this report was produced during the Obama Administration – which does not come off well, by the way, lest you worry the entire affair is too liberal-biased – and Obama ran on reaching across the aisle. Bening deftly captures a woman who wants to reveal what could be considered war crimes but understands the political upheaval that would create. And then there’s the extended ensemble, which may not be topped this year, to be honest, in terms of great modern character actors. Jon Hamm plays Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Ted Levine plays John Brennan – Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Corey Stoll, Matthew Rhys, Tim Blake Nelson – this flick is full of great performers giving it their all.
But it’s ultimately Driver’s movie, and it's one of his best performances to date. It’s the kind of turn that will be vastly underrated because of how much information Driver is forced to lay on the table in scene after scene, but he very subtly sells Jones’ mounting indignation at what he’s uncovering. The “data dump” scenes could have become rote but Driver keeps the flame alive in this movie, making Daniel’s righteous fury our own. I know that our current political divides make this hard to believe, but this is actually, in my opinion, a non-partisan film. It’s about transparency. It’s about expecting honesty from our government. And that’s something on which we should all agree.
There’s an undercurrent of transparency running through Gavin Hood’s “Official Secrets” too, but it’s in service of a film that plays out like a more traditionally melodramatic political story than Burns’ film. It’s the difference between a procedural and a melodrama. Hood relies too heavily on overwrought monologues and the kind of dialogue that sounds written by a screenwriter instead of something that anyone would organically say. Too much of “Official Secrets” plays out like a history class. Sure, it’s a very interesting chapter in British history, and a story that didn’t get nearly enough play in the American press, but that doesn’t inherently make for a good film.
Keira Knightley plays Katharine Gun, an employee at GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), a British surveillance agency that monitors activity looking for terrorist threats and other issues of governmental importance. She receives truly disturbing instructions. The U.S. government wants help from GHCQ to make the case for war. They haven’t found WMDs, and they’re asking the Brits to literally provide potential blackmail material against the countries in the U.N. Security Council who may oppose going to war until they do. It’s insane if you think about it for even a little bit. The United States asked the British surveillance team for dirt on countries who might vote against war. Gun was upset enough to leak the memo, a definite violation of the Official Secrets Act. Although do you have to obey a law of your country if that law is protecting an illegal war?
Like Burns, Hood populates his political drama with recognizable faces, including Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Jeremy Northam, and Ralph Fiennes, but they’re basically in three different movies. There’s the story of Gun and her decision to commit what was essentially treason; the story of the reporters to whom she leaked the memo and their complications in publishing it; and then the story of the legal team who chose to defend Gun. Hood can never figure out how to wrangle all of these narratives into one story, and he relies too heavily on cheap techniques like over-use of score and overwritten monologues. Gun’s story is undeniably an important one in the way it reminds us to stand up to injustice even when it may cost us our freedom but this movie doesn’t really do that story justice.