When then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked about weapons of mass destruction at a news briefing in 2002, he gave a rambling answer about known knowns, known unknowns, and “unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
It was the kind of perfectly Orwellian doublespeak that characterized so many moments surrounding the War on Terror, and a specter that Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) comes up against over and over again in The Report, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ directorial debut — a sobering, supremely well-crafted procedural in the vein of Spotlight and The Post that seems designed to induce anger and catharsis in equal measure.
Jones, like so many protagonists in stories like these, comes in as a true believer: a college student who immediately switches his major after 9/11 and is determined to serve and protect, though his weapon of choice is the FBI, not the military.
But where he lands half a decade later is aimed at a threat much closer to home — specifically, leading an investigation under Senator Diane Feinstein (a prickly, excellently understated Annette Bening) of exactly how the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” became a fig leaf for acts that looked and sounded a lot like the Geneva Convention’s definition of torture.
Even as the narrative time-jumps across several points between 2002 and 2013, Burns resists sexing up his storyline with quick edits or glamour shots; most of the movie’s action takes place in chintz-sofa’d Senate offices and windowless, halogen-lit basements. Though he is also unflinching in his depictions of the “techniques” — stress positions, waterboarding, mock burial — that certain members of the C.I.A. were convinced, against all past and current evidence, would lead to unique, actionable intelligence.
It’s outrageous and outraging — as it should be. Some bits, inevitably, can feel a dry or arcane, but it helps that so many familiar faces are there to tell them, including Jon Hamm as Obama’s put-upon chief of staff; Maura Tierney, Jennifer Morrison, and Michael C. Hall as staunch C.I.A. loyalists; and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter who knows what he doesn’t know.
Anyone with a general recollection of the last five years’ headlines or access to Wikipedia will know how this story ends, but what Burns and Driver do together is compel their audience — or try, at least; approximately half of America still reportedly supports enhanced interrogations — to remember recent history so that maybe, we’re not doomed to repeat it. A–
(The Report premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It’s in limited theaters Nov. 15 and begins streaming on Amazon Nov. 29)