Hard to believe it has been almost two months since the publication of the Afghanistan Papers, the confidential reports obtained by the Washington Post that described, in stunning new detail, the mismanagement of a war that has now spanned three decades and three U.S. administrations.
The many revelations included an extensive effort by the U.S. government to mislead the American public about the war’s success while thousands died, trillions of dollars disappeared and the region slid into chaos following the military “intervention” in response to the 9/11 attacks.
Do most people even know what I’m talking about? It seems that at any other moment in recent history, such a story would have prompted widespread outrage and introspection; it should have been to the so-called “War on Terror” what the Pentagon Papers were to the Vietnam War. Instead? Crickets.
Today it’s just another thing that happened 100 news cycles ago, grabbing a few days’ coverage before the rest of the media returned to impeachment, the Democratic primary campaign and the president’s Twitter feed.
If huge news stories now arrive as radar blips, the events depicted in “The Report” are going to feel like ancient history. The film, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, is about the investigation of the CIA’s use of torture during overseas interrogations following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a congressional staffer who leads a team of investigators piecing together what became known as the Torture Report, a yearslong effort that was completed in 2012.
The film hasn’t generated much discussion or awards-season attention, despite a solid cast that also includes Jon Hamm, Annette Bening, Michael C. Hall and Matthew Rhys. It features a masterful leading Driver performance that’s a great deal less flashy than either of his other two current high-profile roles: the genius theater director going through a divorce in “Marriage Story,” and Darth Vader’s emotionally conflicted (one might say) grandson in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
It’s too bad that “The Report” seems, like so much of the real-time history it depicts, destined to become an afterthought, as life, news and culture continue their breakneck acceleration. But the film’s meticulous pacing and thoughtful direction underscore the gravity of what its characters discover between the lines of memos on classified programs and in shaky legal briefings justifying the use of “enhanced interrogation.”
Its stakes might feel lower, since most of the action is driven by questions like: will the Senate Intelligence Committee accept the team’s findings? Will a summary of the 3,000-plus-page report be made public?
But much larger questions form the backdrop of Burns’ story about diligent people doing important work — namely about the oft-evoked concept of “American values,” which nobody bothers to explain apart from a general consensus that it excludes torture.
Why, for instance, would the CIA trust two contractors with dubious credentials to develop its entire interrogation system when basic logic suggests evidence obtained under intense physical duress would be, by definition, unreliable?
And why did then-President Barack Obama, who ran against interventionist wars in the Middle East that had become unpopular, refuse to act on the damning information in the Torture Report? Because Osama bin Laden’s death effectively won him reelection, one official tells Jones in deadpan, as if it’d be strange to suggest otherwise.
“The Report” never wanders too far into the procedural weeds without dramatizing the consequences, in grim flashbacks, of what’s being investigated. A detainee named Abu Zubaydah, for instance, was waterboarded 83 times in a single month before the CIA learned he was a low-level al-Qaeda associate, not a terrorist mastermind.
The film emerges as a sobering and timely exhibit of what’s often called the banality of evil. That’s the normal institutional activity, often practical or well-intentioned, whose end result, several layers of bureaucracy later, is a level of depravity that renders this idea of “American values,” whatever that meant in the first place, ever more elusive.