Biweekly Binge: The importance of being accountable
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's The Report, streaming on Amazon
If you type Obama into YouTube, the suggestions are 'funny moments', 'anger translator', 'mic drop', etc. If you type George Bush, the first suggestion is — you guessed it — 'the shoe'. Viral, ASMR-like tingly videos for one President and the ultimate feat of ignominy for the other. So far, so predictable. While Bush's position in the global sphere is unambiguous, Obama seldom receives his share of flak for civilian deaths under his leadership and the drone program. Nobody likes to say the problematic things about everyone's favourite president since JFK, more so due to what the intervening years have brought down upon us. Rarely do you find pop culture that is critical of Obama. Scott Z Burns' new film The Report is one such rare gem, going where contemporary entertainment media rarely does.
The Report is about US Senate investigator Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) and his work on uncovering CIA's use of torture following the September 11 attacks. Also written by Burns, it is a marvel how kinetic the narrative is, almost like his script for the Bourne films, but without action; only scenes of Jones warring with his bosses, poring over papers, and trying to get the thousands-of-pages-long report out in the public.
The timelines move back and forth, and they are quickly cut, between Jones' meticulous investigation into emails and documents in a covert CIA office that is more like a bunker — the office looks less like his workplace and more like he is on house arrest — and scenes of interrogation from late 2001 to mid-2000s in various CIA 'black sites'. His life is indeed not in his custody. The first question we hear him being asked — by his lawyer — is whether he has a girlfriend. His work doesn't allow for relationships or, even, life. He is at the CIA computers all day (they cannot take any document out of the office) tapping into search boxes and re-reading dates, numbers, and memos. He notices that there is no printer in the room and the CIA officer who introduces Jones to his office says, "Paper has a way of getting people in trouble in our place." Jones replies, just as sardonic in his tone, "At our place, paper is how we keep track of laws."
There is a Sorkinian idealism to it but with a more evolved real-world self-awareness. Every time Jones discovers what the torture techniques did not achieve, like only obtaining previously known information or nothing helpful at all, Driver's face crumples into a knot. Intelligence received long before the EIT (Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) or outside of EIT, are claimed to have been obtained through the program. We are soon introduced to psychologists Mitchell and Jessen — ex Air Force men — who practically weaponise psychology with plain pseudoscience. It emboldens his resolve further, to get this report out quick, to show the extent of human rights violations and unchecked power given to the intelligence community.
At one point, the Department of Justice opens an investigation into CIA that bars all CIA personnel from speaking to Jones' team. All he has at his disposal are CIA's own communication with which he has to piece together the story. The work consumes him, he loses sleep over it, and his colleagues have the same experience, they quit, until one day, he is the only one left in the team. When the DOJ gives a clean chit to the CIA, Jones is the only one even working on it. They close the case for lack of evidence and as they go up the hierarchy, non-state actors are either indemnified or, all the way up the chain, claim national security. Jones gets mad even at his boss — Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) — who he feels is not aggressive enough. The film also shows that she is simply trying to do her job within her confines and the bureaucratic rigmarole that it would involve, once she puts her name on the report. Her staff says, "The Senate staff doesn't have to run for re-election, but she does."
Oversight and accountability is at the heart of The Report. While it names names, its targets are not individuals, but what is expected of governments in a democracy. "If it saved lives, there is no need for accountability?" is bandied. The CIA directly lied to people and the President about the program, and not one but to two Presidents. The Obama administration, made known of the fact that the program did not lead to the raid of Osama Bin Laden, claims the story and headline are paramount — they don't care that it is wrong. Jones is bewildered, and asks, "What the hell just happened?" Feinstein's chief of staff replies curtly, "The CIA just got the President re-elected."
We see Jones watching the trailer of Zero Dark Thirty, the Hollywood sanitised version of Bin Laden's assassination, criticised for its overstatement of the positive role of techniques like waterboarding, and the timing of its pre-release publicity, just before elections. Obama's office categorically states that the CIA and Bush's mess is not theirs to clean up, even if it means that powerful people are not held accountable for their actions. Obama administration refuses to go after Cheney and the CIA, claiming adherence to post-partisan politics and imploring to be content that America is a country where such a report is even possible. Feinstein wants the country to be more than that, to be the country that made the report public. That resonates in democracies the world over, especially ours, where reports of government failure routinely get delayed (Chennai floods?), RTI activists murdered, and the threat of the act itself diluted. Feinstein makes the film's strongest statement in the form of a question, "Ever wonder why history repeats itself? Maybe because we don't always listen the first time."