Spoiler-Free Review: Top of the Lake starring Elisabeth Moss

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Three of the ensemble cast: Thomas M. Wright, Elisabeth Moss, & David Wenham

I really wanted to like this show, but alas, it was not to be!  I read a BIT about it’s ardently feminist viewpoint (it was co-written by Jane Campion, the New Zealand-based director who gained much acclaim in Hollywood with The Piano).  I was interested in seeing David Wenham (also a New Zealander), who many of you know as Faramir in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Here, he plays a detective who somehow manages to dress well, live in fancy house, and sail on a boat. 

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A group of women set up a sanctuary (named Paradise) by the lake.

The premise is interesting- Tui Mitchell, a 12 y.o. pregnant girl, leaves home w/o a word or note for her family.  Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss from The West Wing and Mad Men), who is visiting her ailing mother from Australia, gets on board this case, having special training w/ youth.  Moss is simply miscast here- she’s the opposite of what I’d expect a cop to be, but she has a few nice scenes with Tui and her mother. 

Top of the Lake has been compared with The Fall and Happy Valley, but it falls short for several reasons. Though the remote New Zealand setting can be beautiful, mysterious, and captivating, it doesn’t make up for the one-dimensional supporting characters and dialogue that often seems removed from everyday life.  The presence of the guru-type figure, GJ (Holly Hunter), and her group of rag-tag followers doesn’t add much to the story.  

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GJ (Holly Hunter) is a willing ear for a group of diverse/troubled women.

As for those looking for romance, you’ll be disappointed, since Robin and her main love interest, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright, who is Australian), have very little chemistry together.  We learn that they dated in high school; he’s also one of Tui’s older half-brothers.  About 15 years ago, Robin and Johnno went to a dance together, shared a kiss, but then the night took on a horrible turn (especially for her).  Robin’s personal history w/ a few of the (not so straight-laced) inhabitants of this insular community cause complications during the investigation.

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Matt Mitchell (Peter Mullan) lives by his own rules… and gets away w/ it!

Tui’s father, Matt Mitchell (Peter Mullan), is probably the most troubled/complicated characters of the series.  You JUST don’t know what he’ll do next!  Is he a villain or simply a hothead?  Mullan (who is Scottish) is a talented actor, but I got the sinking feeling that he was TOO good for this show.  As a few critics have written, men are NOT heroes in this story, or even tolerable.  Almost every teen boy or man is a coward, violent domestic abuser, rapist, or potential rapist!  There is a sense of foreboding throughout the episodes that just gets boring after a while.  Worst of all, I just didn’t care about ANY of the characters!  I guess this is what happens when a writer’s/director’s “vision” gets in the way of the story. 

“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) starring Joel McCrea & Veronica Lake

In Preston Sturges’ highly influential film, John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a wealthy/naive/30-ish director of comedies who wants to make a serious pictured focused of the troubles of the poor. Despite the protests of his producers, Sullivan sets off on a journey, wearing a tramp’s (homeless man’s) clothes and carrying only a dime! Along the way, he meets a beautiful/spirited/failed actress- Veronica Lake (only 19 y.o.)- and gets more hard knocks than he bargained for. In 2007, the AFI ranked Sullivan’s Travels as the #61 Greatest Movie of All Time. This film was selected into the National Film Registry in 1990 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Jerry Seinfeld said for what it’s about, Sullivan’s Travels is his favorite movie.

Sullivan: I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy and then I’m going to make a picture about it.

Burrows (his butler): If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.

Sturges may’ve got the idea for this movie from stories he heard from actor John Garfield, who lived as a hobo, riding trains and hitchhiking cross-country for a brief time in the 1930s. In his autobiography,  Sturges explained that wrote the film as a reaction to the “preaching” he found in other comedy films “which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favour of the message.” Film buffs will notice how Sturges pokes fun at The Grapes of Wrath and mentions (directors) Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch.

Sullivan: …I’m going to find out how it feels to be in trouble. Without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. Alone.

The Girl: And I’ll go with you.

Sullivan: How can I be alone if you’re with me?

Sturges wrote the film w/  McCrea in mind, which pleasantly surprised the actor. He credited the director w/ instilling confidence and treating him as if he were a bigger star than Clark Gable. Sullivan plans to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title borrowed by Joel and Ethan Coen for their 2000 film). The author of the book Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? is “Sinclair Beckstein,” an mash-up of Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck. Directors Peter Bogdanovich and Stephen Spielberg have spoken re: how this film influences their work.

Policeman: How does the girl fit into the picture?

Sullivan: There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?

Barbara Stanwyck was Sturges’ first choice for The Girl; studio execs suggested Ida Lupino, Lucille Ball, Frances Farmer and Ruby Keeler. Lake was pregnant during the making of this movie (6-8 mos)! The only people (in the production) who knew were the costume designer Edith Head and Sturges’s then-wife, Louise. Head designed costumes to hide the condition. Lake was afraid that she wouldn’t be allowed to make the film if her advanced state of pregnancy was known (b/c of the physical demands of the role). The Girl has some clever lines which may make modern viewers think of the #MeToo movement!

Filled with pathos and poignancy, Sturges’ film is an insightful sojourn across the territory of the human condition. It’ll make you laugh and it’ll make you cry, as along with Sullivan you come face to face with some hard truths about reality.

Some very enjoyable references to socially conscious movie-making, to Ernst Lubitsch in particular, make this particularly fun with some knowledge of the period and the films mentioned, albeit not necessary. And almost worth seeing alone for Veronica Lake’s memorable performance as a failed starlet.

Sturges’ most daringly double-edged film, laced with bitter ironies. It is also arguably the most audacious film in Hollywood’s (mainstream) history, audacious because it takes the kinds of risks that can so easily fall flat on their face, and right until the final image, as Sturges becomes increasingly ambitious and multi-layered, you wonder how long he can keep it up without getting ridiculous. It never does…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Power of the Dog” (2021) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, & Kodi Smit-McPhee

SPOILERS: Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen, or don’t want to know, details from the movie (now streaming on Netflix).

Peter: When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?

In 1925 in Montana, wealthy rancher, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), inspires fear and awe in those around him. His younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), marries a hard-working widow- Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst)- who has a sensitive young adult son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Resenting the changes in his home, Phil acts cruel to both Rose and Peter (when he comes home from college in the Summer). Phil tells Rose he thinks she’s a gold-digger. He bullies Peter (effeminate and introverted), and the cowhands follow his lead. After some time, Phil takes Peter under his wing, showing him the ways of the ranch.

George (to Rose): I just want to say… how nice it is not to be alone.

Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for The Piano (1993); she was only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. I haven’t seen that film in many years, but I did like it. I had also previously watched In the Cut (2003) and blogged re: S1 of Campion’s TV show (Top of the Lake). The ranch house and cattle barn (aged to reflect the 1920s) were constructed on location. Filming began in January 2020; due to the COVID pandemic, it was halted until late June. Many critics have pointed out that this film is Campion’s 1st w/ a lead male character. The original book was written in 1967 by an American author (Thomas Savage) who was known for Westerns; he was a closeted gay man who married and had children.

Phil Burbank: Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience in the odds against him.

This is a departure for Cumberbatch; I thought he did quite well portraying a macho cowboy (who is hiding his true self). Though Plemons and Dunst are engaged and have two young sons, they have a awkward (yet promising) chemistry in their early scenes. George and Rose are two lonely people who just decided NOT to be alone anymore; I wanted to see more of them (esp. Rose after she becomes alcoholic). Smit-McPhee (an Aussie actor, 25 y.o.) is getting a LOT of notice; he could be nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He has an other-worldly look and creates an unique character; he and Cumberbatch share a few tense scenes. I thought much more would happen between them (such as violence), BUT this film subverts expectations. What exactly happened btwn the younger Phil and his older/beloved mentor Bronco Henry? Phil idolizes Bronco Henry (20 yrs. after his death); he’s held up as the ideal cowboy/man.

As one critic said, the tone of this movie is like than in The Beguiled. The pacing is V slow, which many viewers (esp. on Twitter) joked about. The score for this film is rather unnerving; I thought it was overmuch in some scenes. Phil whistles a song which Rose can’t play well; she’d gotten a grand piano from George (who wants them to mix more w/ society). Phil then plays the same song on his banjo, taunting Rose further. Though some have called the ending “ambiguous,” I knew Peter weaponized the anthrax (which had infected the dead cow he found on the road), then planned the death of Phil. If you have some time and a LOT of patience, then check this film out.

[1] It’s a slow burn especially in the first half. While I find these characters compelling, I do wish to have more reasons for these characters. I need their history.

[2] Campion lets her camera linger on the outward expressions of inner struggle and the vast landscape, which promises to bury one’s secrets, but doesn’t.

[3] “The Power of the Dog” reinforces what I already knew – male macho posturing and bullying is usually a desperate attempt to disguise feelings of inadequacy and self doubt. Though set in 1923, the film is so clearly about now…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the streaming drama series, book, and 1990 movie version of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Introduction

Handmaids kneeing at a gathering with Guardians surrounding the area

Atwood’s book has echoes of New England Puritanism, along with atrocities drawn from sources including Saudi Wahhabism, the Third Reich, American slavery, and the East German surveillance state. It’s constructed not as a realistic story, however, but as an eyewitness account… -Emily Nussbaum (The New Yorker)

Mankind is failing, most women are sterile because of industrial pollution (or Mother Nature just having enough of us). Birth rates are plummeting. An ultra religious cult see it as their God-given mission to “save mankind.” They seize power by staging a fake terrorist attack against the US government, impose marshal law, and set about rebuilding American society. (“War On Terror” anyone?) They use The Old Testament as their blueprint, but with some totally wack interpretations and distortions. Fertile women become the property of the state. Brainwashed and farmed out to the new ruling elite as baby makers, slavery and subjugation is all they can hope for. -Summary by IMDB reviewer

Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway) and Offred (Natasha Richardson) in the 1990 movie version of “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood wrote her dystopian novel in 1985 (while she was living in Berlin, Germany); it was first published in 1986. She didn’t put anything in that hadn’t happened before at some place and time period in history. Her book is considered a blend of historical fiction and sci-fi; I read it in HS (I think). Many years later, I saw the 1990 movie starring Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, and Aiden Quinn. Critics (mostly) hated that film, BUT I thought it was pretty decent. Veteran actors Duvall and Dunaway played the Waterfords; their ages were appropriate to the book. However, in this new Hulu series, the couple are much younger, energetic, and passionate. 

Setting

A group of Handmaids clean blood from the wall by the river.

The Handmaid’s Tale looks extraordinary – stylised, choreographed almost, menacing. It sounds fabulous, too. -Sam Wollaston (The Guardian)

Even the light coming in through the windows has a soft luxury to it, a Vermeer-ish quality. -Sonia Saraiya (Variety)

Much has been written lately re: the importance of world-building in good drama series; after all, the look is what first draws the attention of viewers to a show. Offred wears a distinctive white bonnet (the 1990 film had a red veil) and scarlet-colored dress and hooded cape, as do ALL the other Handmaids. The commanders wear black suits w/ dark-colored ties; their wives wear blue dresses (covering the knees and and conservatively cut) and matching capes. There are also lower-ranked married women in this world; they are called Econowives and wear grayish striped dresses. The Guardians dress like modern-day SWAT teams- in black and gray colors. 

There are also little/subtle touches which enrich the show. The Gilead-era flag (which is shown in Canada) only has two stars, b/c the U.S. ONLY has control over two states- Alaska and Hawaii. In the real world, the red tags attached to the Handmaids’ ears are used on livestock (such as cows); this is a reminder that the Handmaids are viewed as farm animals, NOT humans. There are mentions of Uber, Tinder, the SATs, and even a cute scene involving a food truck- things that we are familiar w/ in 2017. 

Characters

In the book, Gilead is a white-supremacist culture. In the show, black actors play Moira and Luke. The result is an odd trade-off: we get brown faces, but the society is unconvincingly color-blind, as if race had never existed. -Emily Nussbaum (The New Yorker)

June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss)

The book uses a 1st person narrator, so the reader ONLY knows what Offred knows. This series also gives us POVs of other characters, BUT she is the lead. Moss has tackled meaty roles before (The West Wing; Mad Men; Top of the Lake). She is VERY good at expressing a lot of (conflicting) emotions w/ subtle/brief looks and body movements. In her previous life, Offred was a book editor and married mother to an adorable young daughter (Hannah). At the start of the series, her goal is to stay mentally strong and survive in order to someday find her little girl. 

Moira (Samira Wiley)

Moira (Samira Wiley) at the training center

The petite, out and proud lesbian is June’s best friend. Moira, who is BOTH funny and strong-willed, manages to escape from the Rachel and Bilhah Center in the disguise of an Aunt. Offred gets left behind on the subway platform, BUT she understands the difficulty of the situation. Though there are rumors that Moira died, we see her (later in season) working at Jezebels, a club where commanders come to fulfill their fantasies w/ a diverse array of women (many of whom were intellectuals in the past). Just like the Handmaids, these women can’t say “no.” When they are reunited (by chance), Moira explains to June that Jezebels get good food, booze, and drugs. In the book, she says that she can read and have relationships w/ women. Fans of OITNB rejoice! 

Luke Bankole (O-T Fagbenle)

Luke, June’s husband and father to Hannah, gets a backstory in this series; that is NOT in the book. When they first met, Luke was married to another woman; this adds to the shades of gray in the story. This actor is British-Nigerian and I had never seen him before; he does a great job in this role (incl. the more action-oriented scenes). 

Emily/Ofglen (Alexis Bledel)

Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) and Offred (Elisabeth Moss) at the grocery store

In her previous life, Emily was a college prof, married (w/ a wife), and young son. Offred doesn’t really know much re: Ofglen until after 2 mos. of walking w/ her to do the grocery shopping; no Handmaid can travel alone. Later in the series, Ofglen goes through FGM (scary, yet still happening ALL over the world). This is a VERY meaty (and unusual) role for Bledel; she is best known for The Gilmore Girls

Janine/Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer)

Janine, a fiery redhead, was mouthy at the training center; she was severely punished by one of the Aunts (losing an eye). Poor Janine has a tragic past; she was a survivor of a gang assault (resulting perhaps in PTSD). Moira is tough on her, BUT June has success in calming her down; the behavior of one Handmaid will affect ALL of them.  Even after Ofwarren gives birth to the Putnam’s baby girl, her emotional turmoil continues.

Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd)

Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) at a gathering of the Handmaids

Ordinary is just what you’re used to. This might not seem ordinary right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary. -Aunt Lydia to the Handmaids

Aunt Lydia is the head of the Rachel and Bilhah Center; she is a harsh taskmaster who seems to truly believe in the ways of Gilead. In time, we notice that she feels bad for Janine, BUT she can’t let things slide for ANY of her “girls.” Ann Dowd, a veteran character actress, brings a BIT of ambiguity to the role- she is NOT a total villain.

Cmdr. Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes)

Offred (Elisabeth Moss) plays Scrabble with The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) in his study

Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some. -Cmdr. Waterford explains to Offred

He is usually called “The Commander” by everyone; his wife (Serena Joy) only calls him Fred. Some of the other Handmaids tell Offred that he is “really high up” and “very important” in the government of Gilead. At first, The Cmdr. is merely going by the book during ceremony nights; later, he wants to connect w/ Offred. He requests that Offred come down to his study (a no-no); they chat (even flirt a BIT), play Scrabble (which they are BOTH good at), and he gives her fashion magazines to read (another no-no).

To show her just how much power he holds over her, The Cmdr. takes Offred (wearing one of Serena Joy’s blue capes) out to the club- Jezebels. Notice that he chose a sparkly mini-dress and matching heels for Offred to wear; this shows us what type of woman he desires (someone to show off). Fiennes does a great job w/ his American accent; I don’t think I’ve seen him using one before. The actor creates a man who is complicated, yearning for connection (esp. to Offred), and enjoys flaunting the rules (which he helped establish). 

Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski)

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) listens to the prayer in her parlor

Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness. -Serena says to the Mexican ambassador, Mrs. Castillo

Serena Joy is portrayed by an Australian actress (former model) who somewhat resembles Grace Kelly, BUT w/ a more taller/athletic body. She gets a backstory in this series that is NOT in the book (like Luke). In flashbacks, we see how Serena Joy was a part of the establishment of Gilead; she wrote a book about the role of women. (Atwood modeled Serena Joy on the historical anti-feminist figure, Phyllis Schlafly, an outspoken opponent of the ERA in the ’70s.) The world she helped create has left her feeling alone, bitter, and (eventually) cruel. Serena Joy eventually turns on Fred, saying that he is NOT “worthy” of fathering a child, so God has denied him one. 

Nick (Max Minghella)

Nick (Max Minghella) and Offred (Moss) in the yard

Max Minghella’s performance gets more interesting every week. You never know what he’s going to say until he says it—that face is unreadable in the best and most unsettling way. -Allison Shoemaker (A.V. Club)

Nick is The Commander’s driver; he lives in a humble room above the Waterford’s garage. In the pilot, Offred explains that he is “low rank” and “has not even been assigned a woman.” At first, Nick just watches Offred (w/o speaking); this makes her a BIT nervous, BUT also curious. They begin to secretly flirt; BOTH are feeling lonely and need someone to talk to. Mrs. Waterford gets them together b/c, MOST likely, The Commander is shooting blanks. It takes time, BUT Nick is revealed to be a protector, NOT merely a coward or survivor. He was recruited rather young as one of the Sons of Jacob, a secret group of men who are the Eyes in the households of the commanders. 

Rita (Amanda Brugel)

Rita is one of the Marthas; she has worked for the Waterfords for a few yrs (like Nick). She is brusque, at first, BUT then treats Offred w/ kindness (making her healthy meals). After all, the birth of a baby would be great for ALL of the household. We learn that she lost her grown son in the war; most likely, he was fighting against the establishment of Gilead. I hope that she gets a backstory in Season 2; she is one of the few Latina women on the show.

Themes

Identity/Individualism

The Handmaids’ uniform denies the women individuality until the camera moves close enough so that we see their faces. In Gilead, the group is MORE important than the individual, as the Aunts and Commanders often say. Those women who don’t fall in line, like Ofwarren (who went through emotional turmoil after pregnancy) and Ofglen (who fell in love w/ one of the Marthas), are dealt w/ VERY harshly. 

Children

And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. -Genesis 30:3 (King James Bible)

In this world, a healthy birth happens 1 out of 5 times. June/Offred is in her early 30s and already has a daughter, so there is a good chance that she can have another child. Janine/Ofwarren gives birth to a fine baby girl, gets to breastfeed her, BUT then is ceremoniously put out of the Putnam’s household. Like MANY other viewers, I am NOT convinced that Serena Joy wants a child; she has bought into this society, BUT that doesn’t mean that she’s happy w/ it.

Love & Marriage

Unlike in any number of other gender dystopias, most men don’t oppress women because they hate or fear them, but because they can’t empathize enough to love them when it becomes inconvenient.  

And women gave up everything by empathizing too much and turning on each other to support the men they loved. -Adi Robertson (The Verge) re: the book

Serena Joy is rejected (coldly) by her husband after one halted ceremony scene; after all, intimate relations in Gilead are solely for the purpose of procreation. Maybe some viewers felt sympathy for her then? I was a BIT shocked when The Cmdr. admitted to Offred that he didn’t believe in love; in flashbacks, it seems like he and his wife were once deeply in love. (In the book, Atwood explains that some couples were already married before the establishment of Gilead; others were placed in arranged marriages to spouses of equal status.)

Offred goes to Nick’s room b/c she wants to spend the night w/ him; this happens after Mrs. Waterford has them perform the ceremony. As for love, Offred likes Nick, BUT is still in love w/ Luke.  As for Nick, I think that he does fall in love w/ Offred; he can’t express himself, as it could get them BOTH killed.

Women & Femininity

“Women have too much freedom here,” a foreign undergrad student commented when I asked him how he liked America. A few months ago, I mentioned to a friend how it’s too bad that apt. buildings in some countries (EX: Japan and India) didn’t rent to unmarried couples. “They should have a choice, at least,” I said. She replied quickly: “Oh, all those rules are for protection of women. What if the boyfriend leaves her? And if she gets pregnant?” The founders of Gilead take this type of thinking to another (extreme) level; they think they are protecting the Handmaids and the (possible) future children. How is legally sanctioned rape protection!? In one scene, The Cmdr. tells Offred that it’s the “destiny” of women to bear children. So, where does that leave his wife? 

Freedom & Confinement

Offred (Moss) sees Moira in the club

“You’re free here,” The Cmdr. tells Offred in their room at the club. We know that no woman is free in this world! In the flashbacks, we see June (and other women in Boston) being let go from their jobs, then their bank accounts frozen, before being sent to the training center. Moira lashes out at Luke when he tells June “I’ll take care of you.” Ugh, that’s NOT the point- it’s about choiceOne can argue that Offred finds a sort of freedom in her relationship w/ Nick, which is a (dangerous) rebellion.  

Reading, Writing, & Storytelling

Since reading is forbidden for Handmaids, ALL the items in the grocery store are marked by pictures instead of words. Before Moira’s escape scene, we see workmen chipping away at the signs in the subway. You know what reading promotes- thinking! Before each ceremony, the household gathers in the parlor while The Cmdr. reads the story of Rachel, Jacob, and Bilhah from the family Bible. Offred discovers a Latin phrase written inside the closet in her room; she finds out (from The Cmdr.) that it translates to “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” The Mexican ambassador’s assistant proves that he can be an ally to Offred when he hands a pad of paper and pencil, asking her to write a message for her husband (who is alive). The mysterious package Moira mails from the club to the butcher (another male ally) turns out to be letters and photos from a diverse group of women (some mothers); they are desperate to tell the wider world their story.  

“The Report” (2019) starring Adam Driver, Annette Bening, & Jon Hamm

The Report is a thriller based on actual events. Idealistic staffer Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) is tasked by his boss Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) to lead an investigation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program created in the aftermath of 9/11. Jones’ relentless pursuit of the truth leads to findings that uncover the lengths to which the nation’s top intelligence agency went to destroy evidence, subvert the law, and hide a shocking secret from the American public. The Report is written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, and the film also stars Jon Hamm, Sarah Goldberg, Michael C. Hall, Douglas Hodge, Fajer Kaisi, Ted Levine, Jennifer Morrison, Tim Blake Nelson, Linda Powell, Matthew Rhys, T. Ryder Smith, Corey Stoll, and Maura Tierney. -Synopsis (Amazon)

This movie (acquired by Amazon Studios) is available for free on Amazon Prime; I saw it 2x (to get a better understanding on the issues). If you follow the news/current events, have an interest in politics, and/or enjoyed The West Wing– check this movie out. This has more of a documentary-style approach, so I wouldn’t call it a typical “thriller” (as classified on IMDb). Just before filming, the original plan of 50 days shooting was cut to a 26 days; the $18 million budget was slashed to ONLY $8 million! Burns revealed that ALL the actors (incl. Driver) were paid next to nothing on this project. Burns originally planned to approach the material in a satirical Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) manner; the more he delved into the facts, he realized it had told in the most realistic fashion. The film premiered at Sundance and received a standing ovation for the real Dan Jones (who was present).

Sen. Feinstein: If it [waterboarding] works, why do you need to do it 183 times?

After completing the screenplay, Burns shared it w/ frequent collaborator, Steven Soderbergh, w/ a view as to who he’d suggest for the lead. Driver’s name came up almost immediately; Soderbergh directed Driver in Logan Lucky (2017). In 2007, Dan comes to Capitol Hill as an idealistic young man (wanting to help his country); we learn that he was a Math teacher in Baltimore w/ Teach for America (3 yrs). After 9/11, he switched his classes to national security while at grad school (Harvard). Dan gets a job working for Sen. Feinstein (D-CA), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He ended up working on the torture report for 5+ yrs- wow! Jones was available to provide feedback on set; Driver found this very helpful.

Gretchen (CIA Agent): You may not realize, but we were trying to protect this country from people who wanna destroy everything we believe in.

Dan: You may not realize it, but we are trying to do the exact same thing.

The term “enhanced interrogation” has no meaning under law; the tactics aren’t used by professional interrogators. It was created by the CIA to describe tactics that would otherwise be considered torture or unlawful detainee abuse. The science finds that rapport-based approaches to interrogation are the most effective, as FBI Agent, Ali Soufan (Fajer Kaisi), tells Dan when they meet in NYC. Soufan’s flashback was eye-opening and troubling. I’m now curious to see The Looming Tower, a HBO miniseries (w/ Jeff Daniels and French-Algerian actor, Tahar Rahim, as Soufan) which focuses on the FBI’s response to 9/11. The physician assistant, Raymond Nathan (Tim Blake Nelson), who came to oppose EIT, meets w/ Dan late at night in a parking garage (reminiscent of Deep Throat in All the President’s Men). The psychologists, James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith) were put in charge of not only creating and implementing the EIT program, but also evaluating its effectiveness. This is (obviously) a conflict of interest, as Dan explains to Feinstein in the 2nd hr. of the movie.

Evan (NYT Reporter): If the Times had your report, we would print it, tomorrow.

Dan: No. If it’s gonna come out, it’s gonna come out the right way.

I live just outside DC, so got a kick out of seeing Driver running past the national monuments. Then there are the (relatable) boring office buildings, basement rooms, and working on computers- LOL. Driver has a scene w/ his wife, Joanne Tucker (who he met while they were students at Julliard)! Tucker plays Gretchen (blonde CIA Agent working under the mysterious Bernadette, played by Maura Tierney); she confronts Dan and his colleague in the restaurant scene. Matthew Rhys plays Evan (the NYT national security reporter); he’s a friend of Driver who acted w/ him off-Broadway and appeared on HBO’s Girls. Corey Stoll (who also appeared on Girls) plays a lawyer, Cyrus Clifford, who Dan consults w/ after the CIA goes after him. Driver and Stoll played brothers in the comedy movie This is Where I Leave You (2014).

[1] The late Sen. John McCain gets the last word here, appropriately, with archive footage of his impassioned speech on the Senate floor regarding the necessity of forbidding the U.S. from engaging in torture, regardless of what the country’s enemies do.

[2] The cuts in time work well to put meat on the bones and helps to mix the political, ethical, and real life aspects of it. […]

It is more important than engaging though, and could have been a stronger film for embracing the complexity more than it did.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

Official trailer for The Report.
The director and actors talk re: The Report at Sundance Film Festival with Variety magazine.