By lauding the sleepless work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation into the Watergate scandal, the 1976 American classic “All the President’s Men” delivered the definitive cinematic testament to journalism and political integrity. But perhaps most remarkably, it achieved this distinction not with a showman’s zeal or revolutionary filmmaking; rather, it chose to mirror the didactic professionalism of The Washington Post’s reporting to tell a vital true story in straightforward terms.
“The Report” embodies the vision of “All the President’s Men” in the context of 2019. A recounting of public servant Daniel Jones’ investigation into the CIA torture program after Sept. 11, 2001, “The Report” is a similarly factual, sober look at the corruption of the American government and the honorable pursuit of justice. The film becomes all the more remarkable when considering its cinematically improbable source material.
In 2009, career civil servant Jones (Adam Driver) finds himself tasked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) with leading a Senate investigation into the CIA’s use of torture. Barred from speaking with any CIA employees, the bulk of Jones’ work consists of five years spent combing through more than 6 million pages of government documents. In one small, pasty room, buried underneath floors of concrete and wrapped in leaden walls, Jones and a couple of assistants hammer away.
Yet through a pastiche of conversations in the blank interiors of government meeting rooms (along with the use of gut-wrenching flashbacks to CIA black sites), writer and director Scott Burns manages to bring Jones’ deeply bureaucratic story to life. Even if you’re well aware of the CIA’s program, “The Report” advances a celebration of the integrity behind the Senate investigation and a sharp condemnation of the CIA that gnaws deep into the pit of your stomach well after the credits roll. It’s simple yet powerful stuff, and with a razor-sharp cast led by an unsurprisingly dominant Driver — with “Marriage Story” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” still set to release, Driver is quietly having one of the single greatest years ever for an actor — “The Report” is clearly the best version of the film it wanted to be.
But while Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting would eventually help topple the White House at the time, Jones’ victory (a 2014 executive summary) is far less clear. And in turn, the place of “The Report” in 2019 is far less clear. As the film states in towering white text at its conclusion, no CIA agents were fired or imprisoned for their responsibility for the program. And as it is, “The Report” has been readily forgotten in the haze of a relentless modern news cycle. So what does this tribute to Jones’ virtuosity count for?
Some people would love the uncompromising integrity of “All the President’s Men” to be desirable today. Some would love the workmanship of straight-arrows such as Jones to define our republic. But maybe they don’t. And maybe the “The Report” can be an exact duplicate of “All the President’s Men,” and therefore be nothing but an idealistic relic.
It’s not entirely clear if “The Report” understands this new reality either. Certainly from an affecting standpoint, the film’s not the most potent advertisement for government ethics in an era of films defined by event movies. While not exactly boring, a substantial lack of style often leaves “The Report” as arid as the Washington offices it inhabits. Though antithetical to its idolization of calm professionalism, “The Report” may have benefited greatly from modeling itself after the zaniness of a film such as “The Big Short” — at least if it wanted to pierce the cultural lexicon in an actually significant manner. Nevertheless, “The Report” is content to scorn the pulls of marketability or political cynicism in favor of a hopeful depiction of quiet, competent heroism. So is it fair to disqualify it for failing to play the game of 2019? Is it fair to question if the subtle tenets of “The Report” or “All the President’s Men” resonate in the chaos of 2019? Maybe. Yet the film’s faith in what Jones stands for is undeniably admirable.
Lord knows it would be welcome today.