On the face of it, the prospect of a political drama about the US Senate’s investigation into the CIA’s ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ post 9/11 is a pretty hard sell. It’s highly fortunate, then, that the material is skilfully handled by writer/director Scott Z Burns, who has been quietly on form for years as the man behind the scripts for Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, Contagion, Side Effects and forthcoming The Laundromat.
While Aaron Sorkin’s political scripts are motor-mouthed walking-and-talking affairs, and Adam McKay favours bombastic finger-jabbing, there’s something far more subtle at play in Burns’ film. The focus of the story is Senate staffer Dan Jones (Adam Driver), who’s charged with compiling a report on the CIA’s operations regarding terror suspects in the wake of 9/11. His search for the truth is hindered by the tricky machinations of power at the highest level, and his frustrations become more pronounced as months turn into years with no guarantee the truth will ever see the light of day.
It’s an interesting role for Driver, as Jones is a quiet, thoughtful, largely unknown figure. Burns doesn’t paint Jones as some crusading all-American hero – he’s just a man doing his job, and doing it exceptionally well. It’s testament to Driver’s talent and versatility that he’s able to deliver jargon-y monologues and make it all so engaging – this could easily have been dense and inaccessible, but Driver keeps it accessible and engrossing. Meanwhile Annette Bening provides the perfect foil as Jones’ boss, Senator Feinstein, who supports him while navigating the tricky relationship between the government, CIA and FBI.
Burns also takes a swing at the media outlets that comply with rather than question those in power, directly alluding to Zero Dark Thirty and 24 as propaganda which reinforces the great lie at the heart of the CIA’s EIT programme: that it worked. Of course, even knowing what we do now about the CIA’s abhorrent actions, the reality is that no one was ever prosecuted for the human rights abuses which occurred (and which are detailed with shocking realism in the film). A sense of quiet fury courses throughout the narrative, but we never see that explode onto the screen, and it’s a more interesting, thoughtful film for it.