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The Heavy Burden of The Report

The new movie about the Torture Report has to take on people who still wield enormous influence.

Molly Albright/Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The Report is just an OK movie, which is too bad, because it needed to be great. Very few of the policymakers who enabled the grotesque, systematic torture of terror suspects in the aftermath of 9/11 have faced consequences for their actions. Many of them are still prominent in public life. Most are far more familiar than Dan Jones, the obsessive author of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program—better known as the “Torture Report.” Jones, portrayed by the talented actor (and improbable sex symbol) Adam Driver, deserves to be recognized as a hero, and the human rights abuses he meticulously exposed deserve to be memorialized. The perpetrators deserve to face justice, but this perfectly adequate Amazon Original might be as close as they ever get.

Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, The Bourne Ultimatum), The Report belongs to the rich tradition of Beltway procedurals, stretching from 1976’s All the President’s Men to 2017’s The Post—real-life thrillers set in wonky, earnest Washington, a city that on film consists entirely of marble monuments, brutalist office buildings, parking garages, and the odd Georgetown mansion. It’s a well-established template, and well suited to a story that’s inherently difficult to film: A tiny team of Senate staffers, led by Jones, spends years in a windowless basement reviewing millions of emails to reconstruct the facts of the CIA’s torture program under George W. Bush, and then some of the most powerful figures in Barack Obama’s administration nearly prevent the resulting document from being released. What makes The Report unusual is that the events it depicts took place only a few years ago, and the cast—Annette Bening as Senator Dianne Feinstein, Jon Hamm as Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as CIA Director John Brennan—is tasked with representing people who still wield enormous influence.

The film gets the main facts right. Beginning almost immediately after 9/11 and continuing for most of the Bush presidency, the CIA authorized a secret torture program based on zero scientific evidence, one that clearly violated international treaties to which the United States is a signatory. Dozens of terror suspects, many of them totally innocent, were seized in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan and taken to black sites hosted by U.S. allies, where they were subjected to horrific interrogation procedures. CIA officials poured water on rags over their faces to simulate drowning, slammed them against walls, forced them to listen to high-decibel heavy metal overnight to prevent them from sleeping, stripped them naked and blindfolded them, and sealed them alive in virtual coffins. At least one detainee died in captivity as a result of these methods; countless others were physically injured, suffer from PTSD, have been radicalized against the U.S. in ways they weren’t previously, and can never be fairly tried in court after what they’ve been through.

As The Report takes great pains to emphasize, not a single bit of actionable intelligence came out of any of this savagery. No ticking time bombs were disarmed, no terrorist plots were foiled. Detainees only ever confessed to lies or to information the CIA had already collected through the slow, diligent work of earning trust that torture completely undermines. The program was openly encouraged by Vice President Dick Cheney; defended by neoconservative pundits like the late Charles Krauthammer; legally justified in a memo by Justice Department official John Yoo (played by Pun Bandhu, Yoo is now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of a recent New York Times op-ed arguing against Donald Trump’s impeachment); and designed and executed by a pair of almost comical scam artists who pitched the CIA on their sadistic methods and made off with millions in public funding.

James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), the Air Force psychologists responsible for the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Program, are accurately portrayed as such obvious frauds that it’s hard to fathom how the CIA entrusted them with interrogating terror suspects—a reaction that many CIA officers who witnessed their dehumanizing tactics firsthand shared.

To The Report’s great credit, it doesn’t let the Obama administration off the hook for its efforts to bury the report. If torture is the Bush administration’s crime, the coverup—and the fact that today Bush gets fawning media coverage for painting veterans, watching football with Ellen Degeneres, and offering candy to Michelle Obama—is mostly on the Obama administration. Arguably the central villain of the film is John Brennan, now a regular talking head on MSNBC, where he excoriates the Trump administration for its complicity in all kinds of corruption and criminality. But as dramatized in The Report, on Brennan’s watch, the CIA illegally spied on Senate staffers (for which Brennan personally apologized to Feinstein) and tried to intimidate Dan Jones with baseless criminal charges, simply to protect the reputation of the agency. The authoritarian threat Brennan denounces in the Trump White House was made possible by officials like him.

The Report may be the first major feature film to make the Obama administration look bad. While the widely beloved former president is not portrayed by an actor and only briefly appears in archival news footage, Burns’s script makes clear that Obama had little interest in holding his predecessor accountable, and that he and other top officials like Hillary Clinton nixed their own investigation in favor of a Senate report they hoped would never see the light of day.

Driver turns in a reliably strong performance as Jones, the kind of overworked, idealistic, low-profile staffer on whose labor Washington actually runs. We don’t know much about Jones, but we know that he feels compelled to reveal the truth, whatever the cost to his emotional well-being, even though the country—both the political class and the general public—would rather move on.

So why does The Report disappoint? First of all, the dialogue can be stilted and on the nose (e.g., “History is written by the victors”), in a way that might be appropriate for a prime-time network soap but is unworthy of the uniformly excellent cast. It feels a bit churlish to point this out, since the direction is crisp, the pacing is economical (we learn little, for instance, about anyone’s personal life), and the subject matter urgently needs to be conveyed to the widest possible audience. But the hackneyed script also has the effect of lending an unmerited nobility to the politicians and bureaucrats on-screen.

When Feinstein, whose doggedness in getting the report published deserves commendation, casually mentions that she supports the Obama administration’s drone strikes, it’s unclear whether this is supposed to count as a mark against her or whether we’re supposed to understand that torture is egregious in a way that drone strikes are not. When she insists that the report be bipartisan, it’s hard not to roll one’s eyes, knowing that nearly every Republican senator will try to block it, that most Americans won’t care either way, and that in a few years Trump will propose reintroducing torture to little public protest. When the late Senator John McCain appears (in archival footage) at the end of the film to tout the report, he’s implicitly venerated and thus absolved for his role in launching and encouraging the unjust, still-ongoing wars that formed the backdrop for the torture program—and for endorsing the reelection of the president who authorized it. Bush himself is basically excused, too—a passing line claims he wasn’t even made aware of the Enhanced Interrogation Program until 2006, which is confusing, to say the least—even though his administration is not.

While he doesn’t receive a credit in The Report, the film’s opening scene is likely drawn from a 2016 article by Spencer Ackerman, a Daily Beast correspondent who extensively reported on Bush- and Obama-era national security policy for The Guardian and other outlets. I asked Ackerman how he thought the film captured the torture era and the fight over its aftermath. In general, he was impressed with its accuracy, but one detail irked him: “Bernadette” (Maura Tierney), the credulous CIA field officer who oversees and authorizes Mitchell and Jessen. Bernadette is what the filmmakers call a composite character, but she is clearly based on Gina Haspel, who today is the director of Trump’s CIA. Text at the end of The Report establishes that the current CIA director was complicit in torture, so it’s unclear why Haspel, virtually alone among the real-life figures portrayed in the film, gets a pseudonym. “This is a situation where we urgently need accountability, given that Haspel is now directing the CIA,” Ackerman told me. “That’s a very disappointing cop-out for a movie that I think is otherwise pretty praiseworthy.”

But notwithstanding these flaws, The Report redeems itself with its unflinching depictions of torture. At one point, the film takes a quick shot at Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which drew on consultations with the CIA and portrayed torture as essential to track down and kill Osama Bin Laden. While both Zero Dark Thirty and The Report make their torture scenes hard to watch—they are, after all, torture scenes—the latter also captures how undignified torture is for everyone involved. It doesn’t feel like a necessary evil, something that tough, patriotic public servants must reluctantly carry out to protect American lives. It feels squalid and pornographic and evil, and juxtaposed with the West Wing–esque high-mindedness of the Washington scenes, it’s a critical reminder that policymaking is not an abstract exercise. A delicately worded legal memo in the White House leads us directly to a terrified, helpless, blindfolded, diaper-clad prisoner whose mind and body can never be made whole.