Anyone who has read even a little history knows that as a method of extracting useful intel, torture doesn't work. It didn't work for the Spanish Inquisition, it didn't work in Salem, it didn't work in Vietnam, it didn't work here in Ireland during the 800 years of English occupation. It has never worked and it never will, a fact known since at least the 17th century (although the Ancient Romans also had their suspicions).
Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns
, The Report tells the story of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's $40m, five-year investigation into the CIA's illegal use of torture in the years after 9/11, and the subsequent attempts to cover it up. From 2002-2008, the Detention and Interrogation Program (to give it its official title), saw the CIA employing "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" (EIT), at a cost of $80m to the American taxpayer, with detainees held in secret locations around the world (known as "black sites"). Completed in 2012, the Committee's findings were detailed in a 6,700-page Report, which remains classified, although a redacted 525-page Executive Summary was published in 2014. What the film does exceptionally well is to condense this vast quantity of information down into a relatively easy-to-digest narrative. More of a procedural drama than a political thriller, it could do with a little emotion, and there's no denying that it's very, very talky, perhaps to the extent of being more suited to stage than screen. However, irrespective of this, it's a brilliantly acted, unflinching, and insightful look at one of the most shameful moments in US history.
The film's plot is extremely straightforward - in light of the Agency's 2005 destruction of 92 videotapes containing interrogation material, Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening
) appoints Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver
) as the head of a bipartisan six-person team (three Democrats, three Republicans) to investigate the Agency's general conduct when interrogating suspected terrorists. The film then takes us (often achronologically) from the commencement of the investigation in early 2009 on up to the fight to have the Report made public in 2013/2014, with both the CIA and the Obama Administration throwing up multiple obstacles. Along the way we're introduced to a plethora of characters, embodied by an exceptional cast with not a weak link amongst them - there's John Brennan (the always superb Ted Levine
), Director of the CIA; Bernadette (the goddess that is Maura Tierney
, playing against type) a thinly-veiled fictionalisation of Gina Haspel, Base Chief at Detention Site Green in Thailand and current CIA Director; Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm
), White House Chief of Staff; Caroline D. Krauss (Jennifer Morrison
), General Counsel of the CIA; Thomas Eastman (Michael C. Hall
), CIA counsel; Raymond Nathan (Tim Blake Nelson
), a fictional composite representing the members of the CIA's Office of Medical Services stationed at Detention Site Green, who raised early concerns about EIT; James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge
) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith
), the psychologists who developed and implemented the EIT program; Ali Soufan (Fajer Al-Kaisi
), an FBI agent assigned to the Bureau's Osama bin Laden unit, "I-49"; and an unnamed New York Times reporter (Matthew Rhys
), to whom Jones considers leaking classified material.
Although The Report doesn't repeat anything specifically depicted elsewhere, it does cover some of the same general narrative ground as The Looming Tower (2018)
and Vice (2018)
- Soufan, for example, is in both this film and Looming Tower, and although Dick Cheney and George W. Bush (the central characters in Vice), appear don't here, they hover constantly on the margins, hidden from sight but everywhere apparent. It's also worth mentioning that, as with both The Looming Tower and Vice, The Report is a left-centric narrative, especially in terms of its depiction of EIT and how the CIA lied and falsified data.
The depiction of Mitchell and Jessen is particularly condemning (we know from the get-go that Mitchell is an idiot because he refers to himself in the third-person). If the film has any villains, it's these two; snake-oil salesmen with psychology degrees but no experience of actual interrogations and no data to back up their claims that torture works (because no such data exists). Indeed, this element of the film was deeply personal to Burns, both of whose parents are psychologists. As he explains to PBS, he found it abhorrent that "people had figured out a way to weaponise psychology", which he believes is a tool that "exists to help people". Mitchell and Jessen are shown as enjoying the experience of hurting these people - their justification for doing so (that such interrogation will save lives) exposed as utterly fabricated. At one point, Jones reports to Feinstein that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded 183 times without any results, prompting her to ask, "if it works, why did they need to do it 183 times?" Why indeed.
The film makes no bones about just how ineffective EIT actually was, and how full of garbage Mitchell and Jessen were, despite some Republicans maintaining to this day that it saved lives. In this sense, the audience is made privy to all the useful and accurate information gleaned from EIT - nothing, zero, nada, no thing, not even one thing. As per the Panetta Review (2009), the CIA's own internal inquiry, not a single piece of solid intel was ever extracted from any detainee in the program. Indeed, the contrary was true - EIT led to detainees shutting down or providing false information, or information they knew the CIA already possessed. As Jones states, "all they did was make it impossible to prosecute mass murderers."
Also emphasised is the CIA's attempts to provide legal justification for EIT, with the so-called Torture Memos cropping up a few times. Perhaps the most significant rationale in the Memos is that the program can only be legal if it resulted in "unique, otherwise unavailable" intelligence. Or, as Bernadette says in the film, "it's only legal if it works." With this in mind, the film depicts the CIA as hedging their bets - gambling that people won't care how the information was obtained if such information leads to the capture or death of bin Laden (which it did not).
Thematically, although the film examines multiple politically charged themes, for the most part, its thematic concerns are understated. For example, the Republicans who oppose the Report adopt a stance of "admit nothing, deny everything, make counter accusations". The filmmakers, of course, had no idea that their movie would be in cinemas concurrently with a House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry into the actions of the current president, Donald Trump, who has adopted an identical position from his first day in office. This parallel is never explicitly addressed, but it's right there for those willing to see it. It's also important insofar as one of the film's most salient themes is that the CIA's flagrant disregard for the rule of law, the Constitution, and basic human rights must never again be allowed to happen. This is not to suggest that Trump has sanctioned torture (although at this point, would it surprise anyone), rather to illustrate how quickly we forget the lessons of yesterday.
Although it's mentioned on several occasions that Jones's team and the Report itself must avoid partisan politics, like so many aspects of life in the US, the investigation and debate regarding publication split along broadly partisan lines - the Intelligence Committee voted to publish the Executive Summary by a vote of 9-6; the eight Democrats and Olympia Snowe against six Republicans. John McCain was a member of the Committee ex officio, and so didn't have a vote, but made it known he agreed with the Democrats and Snowe. On the other hand, neither Obama nor John Kerry were overjoyed about releasing even a redacted version, and McDonagh wanted more redactions than were ultimately used. Also in service of a balanced depiction, the film references Feinstein's disdain for Edward Snowden and whistle-blowers in general. It's to the film's credit that it doesn't shy away from such opinions, thus avoiding an overly neat dichotomy of Democrat=good/Republican=bad.
Despite its importance, however, I can't see The Report packing them in at the multiplex. For one, it's exceptionally talky. I would argue that this simply positions the film in the theatrical tradition, but I can certainly understand people regarding it as one step removed from an audio recording of the actual Report. There's also a distinct lack of emotion - every time Jones begins to emote, somebody shuts him down. Along the same lines, there's no character development - we learn nothing about anyone beyond their involvement or connection with EIT and the Report; we never see where they live, we never see family members, we're not made privy to who they are as people. This is by design of course, with Burns wanting to focus on the facts, but again, I can understand people finding it unsatisfactory. All of this results in a dry and sterile film that leans entirely on its procedural elements, which certainly won't be to everyone's taste.
The Report is a straightforward and restrained film, in which Burns's focus is razor-sharp and unwavering. Depicting how EIT shamed the nation, betraying the very values that were supposedly being fought for in the first place, the film excoriates both the Bush administration for letting it happen and the Obama administration for its reluctance to make it public. It's not exactly exciting in a traditional sense, but it sure is compelling; a story that's infuriating insofar as it actually happened, horrifying insofar as, given the clown currently in the Oval Office, it could easily happen again.