Ask not what this movie can do for you…

This is, in a roundabout sort of way, a review of The Report (2019, Amazon Studios). Not the whole thing, of course. Really, it’s more of an executive summary of an even longer and more substantive review that I started writing in my head as I drove home from the movie theatre.

It’s still pretty long, so buckle up, kiddies. Also: While the events depicted in The Report are for the most part a matter of public knowledge (brace yourselves, spoilerphobes), I’m not going to spend a lot of time on story or scene details (so you don’t have to brace yourselves too much, spoilerphobes).

Capitol showing inaugural platform  (LOC)

Every Film Its Viewer, Every Viewer Their Film

A movie (film, bit of cinema, whatever) is a marvelously complex thing. It takes a lot of moving parts to tell a story on screen, all working appropriately together to generate some sort of experience or other for the audience. The end effect is one that is designed (with varying degrees of success) to cause and manage audience reaction to and engagement with the story being told. In one sense (and I am hardly the first person to observe this), a movie is a sort of curated experience in which the audience is prompted to respond to a carefully assembled set of cues, all aimed toward the filmmaker’s various ends (which can include everything from basic commercial profitability to making fairly subtle artistic or political points).

Some movies are more aggressively managerial about the work of curation than others. They are built to guide the viewer’s interaction with their content in such a way as to require very little audience contribution to the experience. Other movies are more suggestive than managerial — they lay out the puzzle and encourage or prompt the viewer to assemble it. Either sort of movie may use varying subtle or overt prompts, and those prompts occur across the experience (in the order of the narrative, in the editing of scenes, in the language in the script, in the use of the score to emphasize the moment, etc.). Some movies are intensely managerial about parts of the experience, but inspire creative responses over and above what they prompt (which is how viewers can come up with richer and better headcanon for themselves for a story that leaves just enough room for it).

Some viewers like to be managed aggressively by the movies they watch, at least some of time; they want to sit back and respond as prompted, and they want their prompts to be reasonably clear and easy to interact with. They do not want to work at their viewing pleasure, they just want to enjoy it. Other viewers prefer the challenge of mining a viewing experience for signs, for meaning — they want to be shown the mystery and assemble an understanding of it for themselves. These are often the viewers who will build more complex experiences of their own out of even rigidly curated film experiences, either by analyzing the experience in the context of broader knowledge or by making symbolic connections to their own experience of the narrative that go beyond what the filmmakers deliberately prompt.

It is possible for a movie to blend managerial and suggestive approaches in various ways (rigid curation using very subtle prompts, for example, or mysteries that look suggestive but are in fact…not). It is possible for a person to be both kinds of viewer at different times and for different reasons, or even all at once. I don’t mean to suggest here that one or the other sort of film or viewer is preferable to the other. I only want to put forward the notion that the continuum between rigid and merely suggestive curation or between more passive and more active viewing is one way to explain why a film might succeed with some audiences and fail with others.

All of which is, I suppose, a really longwinded way of saying that The Report can be an intensely rewarding and interesting and important viewing experience while simultaneously being, from the point of view of a certain sort of audience, profoundly dull stuff. If you’re the sort of viewer who wants an aggressively managed emotional experience that builds in an inevitable crescendo to an obvious fortississimo and falls to a readily expected mezzo-forte denouement, all writ large and immediately gripping, this is probably not the movie to see. If, on the other hand, you want to spend some quiet time with an elegantly constructed prompt for further reflection on a complex political and ethical subject that is remarkably accessible to the non-wonk, this could easily be worth your time. I liked it very much when I watched it on the big screen Saturday, and I will definitely be watching it again (probably more than once) when it streams on Amazon Prime later in November — there are some clever things going on, little editing and visual and narrative puzzles that I want to play with again. So: with this movie, I am that sort of viewer. Your mileage, as the kids used to say, may vary.

Image from page 746 of "American bee journal" (1861)

The Narrative and Visual Geometry of The Report

Let’s get something out of the way: the plot is the dull part of this movie, really. It’s dull in just the way that important realities often are (the reader may choose to insert their own comment on current events here) — a highly condensed narration of the process of doing vitally important work that was, for the people engaged in it, often some combination of tedious, exhausting, enraging, disillusioning, stressful, and just plain bureaucratic (for clarity: I’m talking about the work of compiling the Senate’s report here, not the events the report so damningly details). There is a kind of existential horror to bureaucracy (Hi, Kafka!), especially when set alongside the ways in which the internal mechanisms of bureaucratic management groan and bend and twist when they encounter certain external events or traumas. The audience bored by this part of The Report is, in their boredom, immersed in exactly the kind of nightmare the participants in the events the film depicts came to understand so very well. Knowing that probably doesn’t help, though, if you need a differently curated and more exciting experience.

I have very little to say about the plot.

I do, however, have just a little bit to say about boxes in this movie.

What’s in the Box?

Visually and narratively, The Report is an exploration of boxed spaces (their structure, their relationship to each other, their effects on the things inside and outside of them). There are a lot of boxes in this movie — rooms, hallways, file boxes, office doors and windows, safes, car interiors, actual wooden boxes in which bodies are horrifyingly placed, figurative boxes defining agency turf or bureaucratic responsibility, television and computer screens, etc.

Visual Boxes

The visual world of The Report is made up of tight spaces, framed by the process of characters entering and leaving them. The concrete boxes of federal buildings and black site cells are constantly juxtaposed, alongside a variety of Senate offices and conference rooms, situation rooms and workspaces. The report’s research and writing team occupy a closed basement bunker of a room in the “hostile” territory of the CIA, set in vicious parallel with the cells and wooden boxes (deliberately and carefully called out by the filmmakers) that make up the world of the detainees and their torturers. There is a kind of persistent symbolic claustrophobia lending an edgy tension to even otherwise prosaic bureaucratic scenes in this movie from its very beginning (don’t worry, folks who have seen it already, I’ll get to the snow globe). The real tension in some of the discussions characters have with each other — which are often not especially informative or emotional for the viewer, in terms of their literal content) comes from the closed space in which these conversations occur, the way in which the otherwise unremarkable walls are made unexpectedly menacing by their closeness and signal everything awful contained within them.

The filmmakers’ various uses of television and computer screens as event boxes on-screen is interesting, especially insofar as they tend to be used for visual and historical context. In a film that already has a wonky info-dump for a plot structure, the filmmakers efficiently avoid excessive dumping by using transitional screen boxes and background images and asides (the psychologists weirdly cheery graphic representations of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, for example, projected on a screen in a conference room) to fill in the narrative space behind the action.

Narrative/Conceptual Boxes

The story itself shows us Federal agencies and branches of government in and as boxes, protecting their territories and prerogatives, transitioning from one set of walls to another as administrations change and still have to deal with the leftover moving junk from their previous occupants. Agencies protect their legal and conceptual spaces. Whole parts of government and their individual personnel are thrown into disarray by the breach of the nation’s conceptual walls on Sept. 11, and they scramble to figure out how to repair the walls while not being cast out of them for failing to prevent the damage in the first place.

Most horrifying of all, though, is the set of legal and logical boxes built by and around the torturers and their enablers. For them, people driven mad by a need to do something, enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) never fail — they are only failed by their users. They are legal as long as they work, so they must work (not in the imperative sense that might occasion accountability, but in the inferential sense in which EITs’ working is fallaciously taken to follow from the need for them to work). Competing concerns or implications are boxed out of this self-sealing nightmare, in which the architects of “learned helplessness” make themselves helpless against their own unquestioned commitments.

The Snow Globe

At the very beginning of the movie, Daniel Jones arrives in DC like one of those starry-eyed country kids getting off the bus at Hollywood and Vine with a silver screen in their eyes (an experience Driver himself understands quite well). Somewhere between the first photo he takes of the Capitol rotunda and his first meeting with eventual Obama WH Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (played by Jon Hamm), Jones picks up a souvenir: a snow globe with the capitol building inside. It’s cheesy and hopeful and tacky and charming and full of a sort of desperate belief in what the sacred architecture of that building ought to mean.

It is the first thing Jones loses or leaves behind. It is not the only thing.

That is not an accident.

The Upshot

If what you want from a movie review is a rating or a recommendation, then this is what I have to give you:

Ask not what this movie can do for you. Ask what you can do for this movie.

If that sentiment turns you off from the film, then The Report is not for you. If it is, then join me in viewing and re-viewing and reviewing it, as you like, and then decide whether or not it’s your cup of tea.

About L. M. Bernhardt

Deaccessioned philosopher. Occasional Musician. Academic librarian, in original dust jacket. Working to keep my dogs in the lavish manner to which they have become accustomed.
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