Tag Archives: John Hamm

The Report

15 Nov

‘The Report’: It’s CIA ‘enhanced interrogation’ put to post-9/11 test in page-turner of a movie‘The Report’: It’s CIA ‘enhanced interrogation’ put to post-9/11 test in page-turner of a movie

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Scott Z. Burns has been mostly known as a screenwriter on such Steven Soderbergh projects as “The Informant!” (2009), “Contagion” (2011) and “Side Effects” (2013). Here, in this dark delve into recent U.S. misdeeds, Burns not only writes but takes the director’s chair, with Soderbergh as producer. The simplistic title “The Report” represents something more complex and foreboding – “The Torture Report,” with that middle word crossed off as soon as it spills across the screen in the opening credits. The report in question concerns waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11, and is deeply redacted by the CIA.

If you haven’t seen “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant take on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, there’s a scene early on demonstrating the use of the interrogation techniques. It’s throughly unpleasant, and“The Report” dials the discomfort up from a 9 to, say, an 11. The film begins with U.S. Senate aide and researcher Dan Jones (Adam Driver) consulting with a lawyer about possibly treasonous charges against him for “relocating” a CIA document, then winds back to when Jones, who toiled in counterintelligence after college, lands on the staff of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and is tasked to lead a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee probe into the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11.

It’s mostly a paper trail chase, but a riveting one – think “All the President’s Men” (1976) replete with a mini-me version of Deep Throat. Jones and his team are granted access to documents in a secure basement vault on CIA turf, but no documents are to leave the chamber, and Jones and associates aren’t allowed to interview any of the operatives involved. Meanwhile Feinstein (Annette Bening), solemn and serious, applies pressure to agency leaders under the Bush and Obama regimes, finding the desire for it all to go away is clearly bipartisan.

Through documents (which lead to dramatizations of events) we learn of contractors James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), slithering sorts and former military intel who sell a fictitious (or composite) CIA honcho named Bernadette (Maura Tierney) on enhanced interrogation even without proven results. From the PowerPoint presentation alone, viewers’ eyebrows will raise, but for Bernadette it’s a key weapon in the war on terrorism – Geneva Conventions be damned. As a pair, Mitchell and Jessen are something of a disturbing chuckle, lapping up taxpayer-bought scotch aboard jets and going about their business like Kidd and Wint in the Bond flick “Diamonds are Forever” (1971). Through it all Tierney’s dutiful top cop promises results to her higher-ups and sits and watches the heinous shenanigans (naked men being beaten and sleep deprived by heavy metal music played at eardrum-bursting levels) with cold steely resolve, forever waiting.

The definition of “torture,” as explained in the film, is complicated: It turns out that if you can extract information that can save lives, how you got it doesn’t matter; if not, enhanced interrogation is a human rights violation, and you’ll be left out to dry. Burns orchestrates some nice juxtapositions in setting: Most of the film takes place in dark, windowless rooms, be it that basement vault where Jones and crew toil away in, the subterranean hellholes on foreign soil where Mitchell and Jessen perform their dirty deeds or the soulless conference room on Capital Hill that serves as a boxing ring for Feinstein and CIA Director John Brennan (Ted Levine).

From top to bottom, the performances impress. Bening shines as the fiery Feinstein demanding accountability, and Linda Powell brings similar intensity as loyal Feinstein staffer Marcy Morris; John Hamm adds rational cool as Denis McDonough, the Obama chief of staff trying to hold the middle ground. Of course, the film hangs from Driver’s dogged research wonk, whose focus and commitment to the task and idealism is imbued with a heaviness and signs of fraying over the long-fought years. Words matter – in this case, a very specific one.

Bad Time at the El Royale

13 Oct

‘Bad Times at the El Royale’: You can check in, then suspect no one in this noir gets out alive

 

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a knuckleball-noir, a den of thieves stuffed with double agendas. The star of the film, besides the ripped abs of Chris Hemsworth or sexy boot-wearing waif Cailee Spaeny, is the remote resort of the title, once a grand casino straddling California and Nevada (there’s a red line down the middle of the lobby, and you can drink only on the California side). It’s seen better days, but lost its gambling license. Needless to say, few people check in; by the time the movie is over, even fewer check out.

The time is the Nixon-tainted ’70s, so cellphones are not a thing, but wiretapping and one-way mirrors are. An amiable reverend (Jeff Bridges) and a backup soul singer (Cynthia Erivo) check in first. Then there’s Jon Hamm, right out of “Mad Men” as a vacuum cleaner salesman, and Dakota Johnson, who zips in Tarantino-hip in a mod model muscle car with a bound bundle in the trunk. Not everyone’s whom they pretend to be, and the skittish hotel manager (Lewis Pullman, son of Bill, excellent in a role that seems designed for the late Anton Yelchin) bears the weight of past horrors in the hotel and has demanding owners to answer to. The inn has a few secrets as well.

As the sands shift and the mother of all storms descends, the tension rises. What’s buried under the hotel? Who is the mysterious being fled by Johnson’s Emily Summerspring and her sister Ruth (Spaeny)? Plus there’s the gruesome murder of a couple nearby that we hear about over and over on TV, with the killer still on the loose. Deep Purple and some lesser-known Motown kick up the scene – something that’s needed, because at almost two and a half hours “El Royale” is nearly an hour too long (but stylish nonetheless). And though directed by Drew Goddard, whose debut, “Cabin in the Woods” (2012) was a breath of fresh air to the horror genre, the film overplays moments. The plot, which in premise bears much in common with James Mangold’s 2003 Nevada hotel thriller “Identity,” loses its enigmatic edge a little over halfway in, and many of the more likable souls perish far too soon. But fear not, everyone gets a flashback, and certain scenes get replayed from multiple POVs. They’re neat devices, but not every character comes out feeling fully sketched. 

Hemsworth, who played beautifully against his Thor persona in “Cabin in the Woods,” isn’t given much to do here as a Cali-sun god and cult leader – Jim Morrison infused with the cocky cold-bloodedness of Charles Manson. It’s a big, hammy bone, and it gets well gnawed. The camp mostly works, while Bridges and Johnson hold the fort, Spaeny and Pullman add flourishes of manic quirk and Erivo adds soul, social context and glorious chops. The Watergate fiasco and a MacGuffin that could be tied to JFK loom at the corners, but they’re mostly distractions; the film is best when characters sit and banter over whisky, even if their hands are tied and a gun is to their head.