This opens in media res with a moment that is returned to only fairly late in the day – as Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), chief investigator on a Senate oversight committee’s enquiry into the CIA’s post-9/11 ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ (a synonym for torture, a blunt word blanked out of the film’s title), has to consult a lawyer (Corey Stoll) when it seems likely the Agency is about to kick back against him by accusing him of an illegality not because they really have a case but because a potentially bankrupting legal action will force him to back off. The lawyer quizzes the lanky, jittery obsessive not about the specifics of the inquiry – which Jones frustratingly can’t share – but about how pursuing it over five years has affected him. Jones admits that he’s lost a relationship – with someone we never see – for being ‘a bad partner’, and we can’t help but notice he’s even testy with his pragmatic boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), and hasn’t much cameraderie even with the few other toilers in the nuke-proof windowless concrete bunker room where he has to go through a huge paper/email trail because the CIA won’t let him actually talk to anyone who was involved in EIT. The only person he seems on even remotely friendly terms with is the desk guy who rattles through the conditions of his leaving every evening – and whom he might be betraying if he’s done the thing (‘relocating’ a paper document) he’s suspected of.
It’s a strength of the film and Driver’s performance that this minimal personal drama is as strong a thread as it is for a piece – written and directed by Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers movie The Laundromat) – that has to concern itself with awful matters in potentially excruciating detail as a story unrolls over a a drama-unfriendly succession of numbing years with changes at the White House not exactly helping things … when Obama takes office, there’s even less appetite for raking over the ills of the Bush administration than there was when GWB was in office … and there’s the implied threat of what might happen when the next Prezz moves in, foreshadowed by a mid-term that means the Dems lose control of an oversight committee the Republican members have already tried to sabotage by withdrawing from a bipartisan approach. It’s self-reflexive enough to take previous films – the documentary Standard Operating Procedure and the docudrama Zero Dark Thirty – into account, noting how their existence reflects on what Jones is trying to do, as does a speech about the fantasy tactics of the show 24.
The grim streak of humour that dominates The Laundromat is dialled down, as is the look of the film (with the exception of the grimy torture flashbacks) – though it’s hard not to be appalled and disbelieving of the grotesque mountebank air force shrinks – Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Jessen (T. Ryder Smith) – who sell the CIA on torture as an interrogation technique, and profit hugely from it despite repeated evidence that it’s ineffective … with the unspoken idea that this is because the agency, and indeed the American public, see it as a justified response to terrorism that the subjects merit as punishment even if it means the guilty can never be tried, the innocent are abused horribly and the war perpetuated. A quality supporting cast runs to Maura Tierney, John Hamm, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Levine, Jennifer Morrison, Matthew Rhys and Ben McKenzie.