The Report and Dark Waters are a pair of recent releases about two very different yet equally important real-world topics. The former is a political drama while the latter is more of a legal thriller, but both are tasked with finding a way to unload boatloads of information onto an audience while still being an entertaining movie. One of these is a superior film, but both should be watched nonetheless for the stories they are telling need to be known by all.
Scott Z. Burns’ The Report deals with the investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program- which unveiled shocking human rights violations inflicted on anyone the CIA considered a terror suspect. Led by United States Senate staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), the investigation uncovered countless incidents of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, hours trapped in confined spaces, and worse. In the scene’s opening, the film’s full title, The Torture Report, appears on screen only for ‘torture’ to be blacked out. In addition to these crimes against humanity, Jones and his team discovered that the program never even worked as a tool for valuable intel. About one-quarter of the detainees should have never been detained in the first place. One man was waterboarded over 180 times for nothing; no useful information was gleaned from him.
Burns keeps the momentum up and information flowing. This speed is what makes it easy to follow, even among all of the political jargon. Driver’s performance helps with this as well. He is one of those rare actors who can believably rattle off jargon without losing you. However, this sense of velocity leaves the film a bit cold. There is not much humanity in The Report, which is unfortunate for a film that is advocating the humanity of wronged detainees. Even as Jones gets pressured by his boss and blocked by the CIA at every turn, he shows little more than mild frustration. His colleagues comment on how he has not slept, but this does not seem to manifest itself in any notable way. Jones’ behavior never changes in the film. While his endless drive to get the truth to the public and punish those responsible is admirable, we do not see any different aspects of his life. We are kept at arm’s length from the character.
In contrast, Dark Waters directed by Todd Haynes triumphs thanks to its very human elements. The film tells the true story of how corporate defense attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) took on the chemical giant Dupont through an environmental lawsuit. When a desperate farmer by the name of Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp in a fantastic performance) comes to Bilott for help, claiming that DuPont dumping chemical waste into the water supply is the cause of the mass death of his livestock, the lawyer discovers a lengthy and disturbing history of pollution. DuPont had knowingly been disposing hazardous chemicals into the water supply of Parkersburg, West Virginia, and had been taking part in other dangerous practices that would have nationwide ramifications.
Dark Waters has equally as much information to get through as The Report, and the two films both span across years as their respective investigations stretch on. Though Dark Waters always keeps half of its focus on Robert himself- how the stress of the lawsuit and the attempts to find further evidence affect him. His obsession with the case leads to little time with his wife and kids thus deteriorating his family life. His coworkers either think he is out of his depth or just a plain turncoat. Numerous visits back to the mass grave that used to be Tennant’s farm serve as a constant and painful reminder of what is at stake. It is a very isolating experience for Robert and every glimmer of a hopeful outcome seems to get snuffed out by DuPont’s endless influence. This leads to nervous tics, paranoia, and hopelessness that wears Robert down mentally as he struggles to carry on the work.
Carry on he does and just like Daniel Jones, his perseverance is something to admire. As someone who used to defend these types of companies, the wealthy and powerful that shape politics and laws themselves, Robert’s need to do the right thing comes from many different places. There is the obvious guilt he must be feeling for his part in helping suffocate small towns like Parkersburg in the name of corporate greed. There are Tennant and his family to think about- people who he has come to care for and respect. Their tragic story is absolutely one shared by countless others. Dark Water’s message to make things right when you see something that is unjust- to help those who cannot help themselves, even when the odds are against you and the pressure keeps mounting, act as the small speck of light in what is otherwise a very grim film.
The Report ends on a patriotic note as Jones strolls down the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It seems to suggest that his actions are those of a true American hero, one who embodies the ideals of what the nation was founded on. Despite its subject matter, it has a lighter tone than Dark Waters- a film that lays out how the entire system is rigged and there is little we can do about it. The Report feels contained- a moment in history that occurred, was acknowledged and somewhat corrected (no one involved with the interrogation program ever faced charges). Dark Waters tells the audience that atrocities are being committed by companies like DuPont to this day, and there is still much work to be done if change is going to happen.
Dark Waters is the superior film, but both films should be considered necessary viewings. It is a time of growing distrust filled with anger against the systems and companies that have been running the world. These feelings were channeled into some of the best films of 2019. Both The Report and Dark Waters come from this place, but the two go beyond their storytelling by also accurately describing very real harsh truths. These true crimes will happen again if we let them. With so many films to experience during the holiday season, it might have been easy to skim past two that are anything but escapism. Both films were released to little public notice. It is time to change that- they deserve to be watched. The stories they tell are too important to ignore.