Friday Flicks November 15: “The Report” & “The Good Liar”

M.V. MoorheadNovember 2019
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At Harkins Fashion Square:

The Report—From its generic title on, this political drama is all business. Even the protagonist, played by Adam Driver, has a generic-sounding name: Daniel J. Jones. If memory serves, there isn’t a single scene in the film that shows him at his home, or tells us anything more about his personal life than that he was a jogger. The focus of the film, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, is Jones staring at his computer screen, uncovering and chronicling one of the greatest disgraces in our country’s history.

The real-life Jones was the principal investigator for the U.S. Senate into the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11, known by such revolting, Orwellian euphemisms as “enhanced interrogation.” He was the lead author of the massive Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report produced by the investigation, which became informally and more candidly known as “The Torture Report.” But when the movie’s title appears onscreen as The Torture Report, the word “Torture” is crossed out in red. This likely reflects a commercial consideration for marketing the film, but it’s also reflective of the attempt to squelch or minimize the work’s implications.

Annette Bening has a subtly amusing turn as Dianne Feinstein, to whom Jones answered; without telegraphing, Bening gives us a sense how a basically decent person nonetheless weighs the political upside and downside of everything she does. Some other name players are shooed past the camera, like Ted Levine as John Brennan, John Hamm as Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough; Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll, and Tim Blake Nelson, memorable as always in a brief role as an operative left permanently queasy at heart over what he’s witnessed.

But the movie is really Driver’s, and he’s superb. The performance is a masterpiece of fine shades, from suspicion to exasperation to bristling rage, not only at the horrors he discovered America was capable of, but at the unwillingness of so many to acknowledge them.

In wide release:

The Good Liar—Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen are paired onscreen for the first time in this cheeky thriller directed by Bill Condon. McKellen plays a veteran long-con grifter who gets people to deposit their fortunes into joint accounts; Mirren is the ridiculously attractive rich widow upon whom he’s set his current sights. She has a protective grandson (Russell Tovey) who is suspicious of him, but otherwise the old rogue anticipates clear sailing. He’s mistaken.

It will come as no surprise that the two acclaimed Brits are in splendid form. For more than half its length the movie, adapted from a novel by Nicolas Searle, belongs less to Mirren than to McKellen, who remains droll and charming even as we root against him and find him despicable for his designs on Mirren; we feel like her grandson. But eventually we get a strong dose of the glorious Mirren’s imperious chops, as well. Between their performances, Condon’s handsome, confident direction and a fine score by Carter Burwell, the movie is well-crafted pleasure.

Some of the plot’s twists aren’t that hard to figure out, but the deeper crime at the heart of the story, though compelling, isn’t revealed to us until the mystery is unraveled toward the end, and it has the feel of coming out of nowhere. This sort of construction, in a thriller, always seems like a slight cheat to me, and it makes The Good Liar a triple rather than a home run.

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