If quality art is at the center of the cinematic universe, then economic reality is the gravitational force that makes it go round. Good movies and profitable movies are not always one and the same. One is not inherently better than the other. There can be cultural value found in global billion-dollar blockbusters while art house cinema can often be the overwrought product of cynical misanthropes. The reverse is just as true as well. But the truth that most enervating dilettantes fail to realize is that both must exist in a perpetual homeostasis if either is to survive. That brings us, long and meandering, to The Report which will be distributed by Amazon Studios this fall. Put simply: the sobering and necessary political thriller is one of Amazon’s last shots to turn a little profit from its artistically inclined leanings after a difficult 2019.
Amazon has distributed five films so far in 2019, only one of which has exceeded $1 million at the domestic box office (two more are set for release in the coming months). The studio spent more than $40 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival acquiring Late Night, Brittany Runs a Marathon and The Report. The former two sold for a combined $27 million and have totaled just north of $16 million as of this writing. The Report, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, cost $14 million to acquire.
This is not an attack on the studio, which consistently champions the type of high-minded dramatic fare that is slowly disappearing from theaters. Two of the studio’s best films also just happen to be Oscar-nominated financial successes: 2016’s Manchester by the Sea (nearly $80M worldwide against a $9 million budget) and 2017’s The Big Sick ($56 million/$5 million). It can work. But this is an acknowledgement of the difficult economic realities of moviemaking today—a reality The Report may not change.
The Report, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a fascinating yet brutal and disheartening look at America’s immense shortcomings. It follows idealistic Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), who is tasked by his boss (Annette Bening) to lead an investigation into the CIA’s post 9/11 enhanced interrogation tactics, and uncovers shocking secrets in the process. It plays like a narrative documentary, outlaying the facts in both the linear manner that an investigation of this scope would unfold and the non-linear manner in which one would assemble a near-impossible puzzle. It is a harrowing reminder of our own amorality, lack of accountability and the seeming unending flaws of democracy. The Report is a dense assessment that weaves in real-life torture techniques amid congressional hearings and senate committees. For all of that and more, it comes across as a highly non-commercial endeavor despite the fact that it is a damn fine investigative film. It’s still a hard watch.
The last decade has not exactly been kind to the political thriller. Outside of Kathryn Bigelow’s haunting Zero Dark Thirty, which is referenced in the film, the landscape is littered with similar deep dives that struggled through varying levels of general audience disinterest. No disrespect, but totals comparable to Snowden ($37 million) and Beirut ($7.5 million) aren’t going to save a fiscal year. There’s a reason the very intelligent and effective Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke revealed earlier this year that the studio would begin to make films that debut exclusively on its Prime subscription service and skip theatrical releases completely.
The Report is necessary viewing for anyone who respects quality filmmaking. If you’re a fan of cinema, you’ll find something here to appreciate. If you’re a history buff with a yearning for insight into this country and beyond, you will be shocked at America’s half-buried truths. But if you’re a studio trying to walk the tightrope between art and commerce, The Report may cause a wobble.