Let’s talk, for a moment, about the political thrillers of the 1970s — not just the reality and urgency that coursed through them, but the history-written-with-lightning feeling they gave you. In a galvanizing work of art like “All the President’s Men,” or even a topically charged entertainment like “Three Days of the Condor,” it was the hunt for truth, the moment-to-moment investigative fervor of it, that was always so addictive and engrossing. In those movies, morality and drama became one.

The Report,” written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, is a true-life drama about relatively recent events in Washington, D.C., that carries that same rapt, tense, electric, slice-to-the-bone-of-what’s-happening sensation. It’s the sort of movie that Hollywood once made and now, for the most part, comes up with only rarely; maybe now we have to go to Sundance to see it. But even here, “The Report” is a bit of an anomaly: a large-scale saga of corruption, justice, and overwhelming relevance that’s at once gripping and eye-opening, even if you’re the sort of news junkie who thinks they already know the story.

As the title comes on screen, it says “The Torture Report,” and then the word “torture” gets blocked out, as if it were being redacted. The movie goes on to tell the true story of Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), a staff member of the U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence who in 2009, while working for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), gets charged with heading up a Senate investigative report into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” during the aftermath of 9/11. The impetus for creating the report is the revelation that the Agency has destroyed hundreds of hours of tapes of those same interrogations. What, exactly, went on in them? Jones spent five years and combed through 6.3 million pages of documents to get the answer.

How do you make an exciting movie out of this? Burns, a veteran screenwriter (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) and producer (“An Inconvenient Truth”), has never directed a major feature before, and he doesn’t try to gussy up the events by spoon-feeding us a lot of melodramatic cereal. “The Report” is as steeped in information and wonkish detail as a deep-dive work of journalism. It lets the facts, and our apprehension of what they mean, tell the story. That’s a tricky thing to bring off, but Burns, by trusting the audience, has created a darkly authentic political thriller that does exactly what a movie like this one should do. It leaves you chastened and inspired.

Driver, in jackets and ties and a squared-off haircut that give him the look of a bureaucratic D.C. lifer, plays Jones as a man consumed, at the expense of everything else, by his mission: to learn what the CIA did and why. He and his small staff are given a basement office that’s like a fluorescent concrete tomb with obsidian computer screens. As he looks at what happened to each of the key Middle Eastern figures who was captured and detained after 9/11 (there were, in the end, a total of 119), the film flashes back to extended sequences that show us how the enhanced interrogation techniques program evolved and what it really looked like.

We’ve seen bits of this in movies before, such as “Zero Dark Thirty,” which implied that shutting someone up in a box rendered him more cooperative. Burns sticks closer to the real record: that when prisoners were subjected to practices that edged over the line of what the Geneva Convention allows, they didn’t give up vital information — they fell into states of agonized delirium and said nothing, or spouted nonsense, or revealed old contacts. In “The Report,” we see the prisoners squirreled away at black sites, in unnamed countries, in dungeons with tunnels, getting slammed against walls or “short-shackled” to the floor, with death metal blasting, or being waterboarded, a process that was said to be uncomfortable yet “safe” — but, in fact, was not without its hazards.

The man heading up the interrogations, Dr. Jim Mitchell (Douglas Hodge), is a psychologist with a private contracting company who is given a budget of $80 million to grind the truth out of the prisoners. Yet he has never conducted an interrogation before (yes, this all really happened), and he operates under the basic intuitive sadistic assumption that ruled these practices: the more pain, the more gain. When Mitchell and his associate waterboard somebody and ask, “Where’s the next attack?,” it’s as if they seriously believe that there truly is one in the works, and that the prisoner knows it, and that he’s going to give it up.

But as Jones scrutinizes one case after another, he’s confronted not just by the horror of what went on, but by the staggering ineffectiveness of it. None of the prisoners reveals anything. Ever. Yet that’s not how the CIA spins it. In truth, the things that were learned during that time — like the revelation of who Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, was, or the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden — all came from connecting dots of information that the CIA already had in its possession. The enhanced interrogation techniques trashed international law and gave the U.S. nothing. And, of course, became the ultimate recruiting tool for radical Islam.

You may say, “Sure, I knew all this already.” But it’s not as if Watergate was news the first time (or the 10th) you ever watched “All the President’s Men.” “The Report” burrows into the palace intrigue of how the realities of American torture were covered up, and of what was going on in the minds of the people who were doing this stuff. President Bush, as the film makes explicit, was kept out of the loop; it was Vice President Dick Cheney who gave the approval. And what “The Report” shows us is that the torture, even though it wasn’t working, gratified something in the psyche of the men (and, on occasion, the women) who operated the American security machine. Whether or not it worked, it was on some level payback, a primitive signifier of war.

Adam Driver, who is such a fine actor, keeps finding new things to surprise us with, changing up his persona in ways that feel entirely organic. In “The Report,” he speaks in rapid fire, with concentrated purpose and intensity, and he’s tasked with the challenge of delivering great big heady chunks of dialogue that are there to lure us into the action on an expository level — i.e., he keeps telling the audience what’s going on. Yet the fiercely contained force of Driver’s performance is that he makes this ongoing factual download a vital part of the character. Washington is the ultimate town that runs on information, and for Jones, the complicated question of what the CIA did, and knew, becomes an issue of obsession. He’s explaining it to us and to himself.

About halfway through the movie, he gets ready to deliver his report (which ran, in its original form, to nearly 7,000 pages), and that’s when he runs up against the roadblock that was always lurking: the CIA plans to kill it. Even after President Obama is elected and uses the T-word (“torture”) in his first few days of office, he wants to get the issue behind him. But Jones, though he’s at the nexus of U.S. government power, realizes that he’s been appointed, in effect, to be a whistleblower. He’s like a one-man Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and he pushes back against any attempt to bury the report. He ends up with a target on his back.

Staging recent history, and making it convincing, isn’t easy. But Scott Z. Burns brings it all off with supreme confidence. He leaps from Senate hearings to back-room meetings with the threatening new head of the CIA, John Brennan (Ted Levine), to Jones’s Deep Throat-like encounters with a CIA medical officer (Tim Blake Nelson) and the New York Times national security reporter. Jones is also forced to take a meeting with a high-priced lawyer (Corey Stoll) when it looks like he may face criminal charges for leaking a classified document: the CIA’s own report on enhanced interrogation techniques, overseen by Leon Panetta, which came to the same conclusion that Jones’ report did. The CIA knew torture wasn’t working, but couldn’t admit it because it would damage the Agency’s credibility.

The average political drama would look at a reality like that and tut-tut its disapproval. But part of the seductive intelligence of “The Report” is that Burns, as a filmmaker, wants to understand as much as he wants to wave a moral flag. His film isn’t a liberal-left harangue. It unfolds in the world of realpolitik, where a man like Daniel Jones operates out of a purity that the country needs but, at the same time, can’t always afford. (There’s a dryly funny phone call between Sen. Feinstein and President Obama, in which Obama’s curt refusal to make heads roll is basically his way of paying the CIA back for killing Osama bin Laden, and therefore aiding his re-election.)

Nowhere is the balance of idealism and practicality, valor and hard-headedness, more exquisitely embodied than in Annette Bening’s superb performance as Dianne Feinstein. From her beauty-shop hair to her iron-lady gaze to her voice of delicate will, Bening is note-perfect. But she also makes Feinstein a ticklish study in how power works, at its best, in Washington — as a game of survival that filters the right thing to do through the art of the possible. “The Report” is a galvanizing movie that, if handled correctly, many people will want to see, because by the time it’s over the movie feels like something this country needs now more than ever: a reckoning.

Film Review: ‘The Report’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), January 26, 2019. Running time: 118 MIN.

  • Production: A VICE Media production. Producers: Steven Soderbergh, Jennifer Fox, Scott Z. Burns, Kerry Orent, Michael Sugar, Danny Gabai, Eddy Moretti. Executive producers: Nancy Dubuc, Shane Smith, Natalie Farrey, Lila Yacoub, Michael DiVerdi, Vincent Landay, TJ Rinomato.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Scott Z. Burns. Camera (color, widescreen): Eigil Bryld. Editor: Greg O’Bryant. Music: David Wingo, Matthew Rhys.
  • With: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall.