By Matt Hanson
The Report reminds us that elections can have dire consequences — after the Republicans take control of the Senate during the Obama era, the Senators who are asking the tough questions are either out of office or in the minority.
The Report, directed by Scott Z. Burns. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
It’s not every day that the Secretary of State decides to weigh in on the accuracy of a feature film. A couple of weeks ago, Secretary Pompeo tweeted that The Report, now streaming on Amazon Prime, was “fiction.” This is accurate, but not in the sense that Pompeo meant. He went on to say that “to be clear: the bad guys are not our intelligence warriors. The bad guys are the terrorists.” The film’s dramatization of the dogged effort to bring to light the ugly, unconstitutional legacy of the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (also known as EITs and, in plain English, torture) demonstrates that the morality of the CIA’s actions were not at all as clear-cut as the Secretary would evidently like us to think.
The Report tells the story of Daniel Jones, played by the ubiquitous Adam Driver (a former Marine), an ex-FBI officer who spent years digging through the CIA’s memoranda related to their use of EIT on terrorists and terrorism suspects alike in extra-judicial black sites around the world. Working for Senator Dianne Feinstein (played by an unrecognizable Annette Bening), Jones and his small team of researchers spent years working seemingly around the clock in an inaccessible windowless room going over millions of pages of classified material detailing the often grotesque, brutal and, perhaps most importantly, fruitless efforts to procure information from suspects. Jones’s determination to preserve government accountability poses unavoidable dramatic challenges; it’s hard to make watching a man go through dense forests of government files visually compelling. Director Scott Z Burns wisely lets the story unfold deliberately, embracing the meticulousness of research rather than trying to sensationalize what is already a disturbing story.
The Report is reminiscent of ’70s era political thrillers like All The President’s Men. The action isn’t just what happens offstage — it takes the form of gradually revealed disclosures. Jones tenaciously plowed through reams of material to uncover a mind-bending amount of lawbreaking, incompetence, and sheer brutality. Jones discovers — and the film makes explicit — what the CIA was doing to prisoners: the hours spent in stress positions, denial of sleep, rectal hydration (don’t ask), physical and psychological cruelty, waterboarding, “learned helplessness,” and much else. The Bush-era panic about the “war on terror” deemed that nothing was out of bounds. Two psychologists were brought in, with scant experience in prisoner interrogation, to perform outrageous acts that were tacitly assumed to be necessary given the need for information that would make the country safer. Which it didn’t. Some assistants at the Office of Medical Services even went so far as to quit out of disgust at what they’d witnessed.
9/11 and the Iraq War weighed heavily on the collective unconscious during the George W. Bush era, which made the issue of torture a difficult topic to argue about. Still reeling from the shock of global terror, and hopped up by the echo chambers of outrage on cable news and talk radio, many weren’t, to put it mildly, terribly concerned with the humane treatment of suspected terrorists. Besides, the president and several members of the administration were flatly claiming that “America does not torture.” Criticizing the use of “enhanced interrogation” to prevent another terrorist attack was considered cowardly and/or unpatriotic. Was it possible to be sympathetic in anyway with Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the mastermind of the 9/11 attack? But, as Feinstein pointedly asks, if EITs really worked, why did we need to do it 183 times?
Jones’s research reinforced critiques of torture that contradict the bellicose assumptions of the right. Not only does it not work, but it boomerangs. Information isn’t useful when it comes from someone who is desperately trying to stop being tortured. What’s more, Jones discovered that the CIA already knew the information that it was using “enhanced interrogation” to get. The final nail in the coffin: EITs made a legal trial, even for the mastermind of 9/11, impossible. Jones laments that torture hands a useful recruiting tool to Al-Qaeda that will ultimately end up putting more American soldiers at risk.
Jones doesn’t come to these grim conclusions lightly. Idealistic as he is, he’s no righteous crusader or glory hound. He just put his head down, year after year, and did the grueling legwork while his investigation was being thwarted at every turn. Jones becomes increasingly exasperated as he carefully maps out how the CIA’s dirty deeds were allowed to go on because of a systemic lack of transparency, bureaucratic inertia, and political expediency. The Kafkaesque nightmare logic of the operation keeps piling up. The CIA considered the EITs legal only “if they worked.” Which meant that torture was always justified — retroactively. One agent suggests to one of the psychologists that maybe the suspect was lying to stop the waterboarding. The response is that, because of the waterboarding, “we know he’s lying.” The agent replies that the ostensible purpose of these techniques is to get the truth. Oh yes, goes the response, “the truth is, he’s lying.”
Jones’s report was eventually published, after the CIA vigorously blacked out much of the text and issued passionate denials of the conclusions the evidence led to. It was not enough for Jones to have his facts straight; he also must find people in power who are willing to risk their political capital to support and defend his findings in public. The Report reminds us (yet again) that elections can have dire consequences—after the Republicans take control of the Senate during the Obama era, the senators who are asking the tough questions and making public what’s been done in the country’s name are either out of office or in the minority.
At one point, the Obama administration wants to ignore the report in order to work on other issues. It is afraid of losing the “post-partisan” reputation that Obama depended on to be elected in the first place. It’s not their mess, after all. But the point is made, by a weary but determined Senator Feinstein, that, yes, it’s not, but that doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t clean it up. She backs this up with a powerful statement that could serve as the film’s motto: “Ever wonder why history repeats itself? Well, maybe it’s because we don’t always listen the first time.”
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in The American Interest, The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.