Sundance: Great acting in "Clemency," an education in "The Report"
Tuesday, January 29, 2019 at 12:44PM
Murtada Elfadl in Adam Driver, Alfre Woodard, Annette Bening, Clemency, Danielle Brooks, Sundance, The Report, film festivals, politics

Murtada Elfadl reporting from Sundance

Should we react to movies based on content or artistic merit? I struggled with two movies at Sundance this week which had incendiary, important content and tackled either a crucial part of history or provided necessary social commentary. Artistically, however, I found both Clemency and The Report lacking...

In The Report writer director Scott Z Burns follows Senate Staffer Dan Jones (Adam Driver shackled with delivering lots of exposition) between 2009 and 2014 as he investigates the CIA’s secret torture program post 9/11 on the behest of Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening pursing her lips to indicate feelings but otherwise keeping mum) and the Senate Intelligence Committee. The subject matter is important, and the film is clearly on the right side of history strongly indicting the CIA and criticizing the Bush and Obama administrations for perpetuating the program and stalling on releasing the report respectively. However it’s also facile in heroizing Jones and Feinstein and presenting them with no nuance. The investigation itself is written, shot and delivered as a dry information dump. There is almost no tension, not one interesting shot, just scene after scene of heavy exposition between people in DC rooms, shot with blunt light and no style. The actors give it their best (it’s a huge cast that also includes Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney and Ted Levine among many others) but can't really bring this material to life. I learned a lot of information but was not entertained or moved.

On the other hand Clemency  - written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu - conjures a lot of feelings: Rage and empathy because of its precise and scorching indictment of capital punishment; marvel at Alfre Woodard’s fantastic lead performance and her many spot on close ups; And unfortunately fatigue and ennui as scenes are repeated or play on for far too long, even those marvelous Woodard close-ups appear too often and sometimes unnecessarily.

Woodard navigates many emotional beats. Her Bernadine Williams is a prison warden tasked with managing death row and ensuring the executions happen. That burden takes a toll on her life, her marriage and her psyche. The film presents her dealing with inmates, families, her prison administration colleagues and her husband as yet another inmate is being prepared for execution. The pace is languid and slow and if it wasn’t for Woodard’s searing agility in playing this haunted woman, the film would not have worked. A tighter edit and more variation in stylistic choices would have gone a long way. It snaps to life when Danielle Brooks comes in for a one scene cameo and just electrifies the film with raw but specific emotions, telling a whole life’s worth of story in a few minutes. I only wish there was more of those moments.



Article originally appeared on The Film Experience (
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