As social bellwethers, movies are notoriously lagging indicators: The time it takes to write, finance, produce and market a Hollywood film means that even the most of-the-moment story often hasn't made it to the screen until a few years after the events in question.
That calculus is changing. This season alone, viewers are being treated to dramatized versions of such recent or near-recent front-page stories as deceptions that led to the Iraq War (Official Secrets), the Panama Papers (The Laundromat), the firing of Fox News chief Roger Ailes (Bombshell) and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's 2014 report on interrogation methods used by the CIA in the wake of 9/11.
That last film, The Report, stars Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones, the Senate staffer who researched and wrote the report. (The Report is distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
In the movie, Jones doggedly overcomes institutional intransigence, political self-interest and public apathy to expose what amounted to torture - which he concludes was illegal, immoral and ineffective.
Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns (who also directed The Laundromat), The Report is part of a genre - spanning such tonally diverse films as Spotlight, The Big Short, Vice and the upcoming Just Mercy - that might be called accountability filmmaking: fact-based movies that treat audiences not just as spectators but as citizens, hoping to engage them enough to take action or at least question the systems that condition their lives.
But what happens when the escalating drama of life threatens to outpace what we're seeing on screen? Somber, methodical and scrupulously researched (Burns wrote a footnoted version of his script that ran to several hundred pages), The Report asks filmgoers to enter a dizzying reality-adjacent world in which they're consuming vaguely familiar news from a few years ago while trying to keep up with a rapidly changing political drama unfolding on their television screens.
While U.S. House intelligence committee chief Adam Schiff - himself a would-be screenwriter - does his best to construct a narrative that is convincing enough to impeach a president, actual movies have become the final narratives of a collective past that feels simultaneously dated and too fresh to process properly, either as entertainment or history.
Jones, for one, thinks The Report meets the present moment, to remind American citizens not just of the particulars of what he discovered regarding the CIA's most egregious practices but of such timely principles as abuse of executive privilege and the separation of powers.
"The deference to which the legislative branch has operated over the past few decades is just appalling," Jones said in a recent telephone interview, adding that both parties are to blame. "They need to do robust oversight, not just to get the guy on the other side, but because it's their job. It's a check."
Jones also sees The Report as a corrective to the CIA's own story, which he says they marketed "like an iPhone" by closely working with the television show 24 and the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty, which depicted the hunt for Osama bin Laden. That film - which some observers say mistakenly suggested that torture resulted in actionable intelligence - came out just a little more than a year and a half after bin Laden's killing, while Jones was still deep in the weeds of his research. The result was the disorienting realization that, while he was trying to compose a meticulous account of the CIA's actions - based in large part on the agency's own internal investigation - a Hollywood version was already taking hold of the public's imagination. The story had gotten away from him before he'd even had a chance to discover it, let alone tell it.
Seeing people lined up to watch Zero Dark Thirty in Washington while he was walking home from his work in a windowless basement, he says, gave him a deeper understanding of how politics lives downstream from culture. (The Report simply shows him watching the film in dismay.)
Although the executive summary of the Senate report made an impact when it was released in the summer of 2014, "it was gone the next day," Jones recalls. "And we got crushed on the TV debate. All the CIA officials already had their talking points and they were repeating them on all the channels, and we had nobody from our side. I couldn't go on as a staffer, and by then the senators were involved with other things. ... It takes filmmaking to penetrate culture and society."
Will The Report get as much traction as Zero Dark Thirty? Not only is one a process-oriented procedural and the other a rousing action thriller, but the world seems to have shifted ever more wildly in the intervening seven years. News stories - and movies based on those stories, and movies responding to the movies based on those stories - are proliferating at a confounding rate.
Stagecraft, satisfying arcs and high-pitched emotionalism have infiltrated real life all the way to the entertainer in chief in the White House, throwing actual entertainers into the topsy-turvy role of providing sober, dryly factual lessons in civics and political comportment.
And as the media has become more fractured and ideologically siloed, it's fallen to Hollywood to be the final arbiter of consensus. If there's a national conversation to be had about any pressing issue - from racism to the death penalty, corporate malfeasance to constitutional crises - it's happening at the movies and, now, between the movies themselves.