How Scott Z. Burns tackled his feature directorial debut, a gripping film about the inquiry into the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program
LOS ANGELES—In 2007, when the screenwriter Scott Z. Burns read a Vanity Fair story detailing how two American military psychologists had helped devise the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the CIA used to torture captured terrorist suspects after the 9/11 attacks, he was fascinated. The son of two psychologists, he grew up in Minnesota seeing psychology “as a tool to understand and help people,” he told me, “and the idea that it could be weaponized and used to conduct interrogations was interesting to me.”
In fact, the whole idea seemed so bizarre that Burns first envisioned the story as one that could best be told as a black comedy. But the more he learned about the history of the torture program, the more convinced he became that it was too grotesque and complex a topic for that approach. By 2014, when a 525-page summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s secret 6,700-page report on its years-long investigation of the program became public, Burns had a new vision.
The result is The Report, Burns’s feature directorial debut. The film stars Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones, the doggedly obsessive Senate staffer who wrote the report, and Annette Bening as the committee’s unyielding chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who made sure it became public. Having debuted to acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival last winter, it appears in limited theatrical release on November 15 and on Amazon Prime thereafter. Burns said he came to imagine the film in the mold of Alan Pakula’s spare 1970s thrillers (The Parallax View, All the President’s Men). It may well be the only Hollywood movie—it’s certainly the most gripping one—ever made about an official government report.
Then again, the content of the torture report (the full classified version, still secret, contains 38,000 footnotes) is anything but dry. Jones’s investigation concluded that, contrary to the CIA’s official accounts and the impressions amplified in pop-cultural depictions from 24 to Zero Dark Thirty, torture never worked to produce lifesaving actionable intelligence, a finding that George W. Bush’s administration suppressed and that Barack Obama’s White House was equally loath to revisit in public. Indeed, the Senate’s investigation grew out of the CIA’s initial decision to destroy videotapes of some early interrogations, lest they spark public outrage and violent backlash against captured Americans around the globe.
“They seemed to be more interested in turning the page and in moving on than in holding people accountable,” Burns said of the Obama White House in a recent phone conversation. “The notion is that if we turn the page and move toward a nonpartisan politics, maybe we’ll get more done. But that doesn’t seem to be working. And I did want to point out that some of the seeds of the issues we face today are the result of the lack of accountability that was indicative of both the Bush and Obama administrations.”
Burns, who approached Jones when the Senate report first came out, found inspiration for the film in Katherine Eban’s article “Rorschach and Awe.” It told the story of the two psychologists who persuaded the CIA that they could “reverse engineer” the training that American soldiers receive to endure captivity in enemy hands—to obtain information that could be used to foil future terrorist attacks. The goal was to break down suspects’ will to resist with brutal techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positioning, forced rehydration, and “rectal feeding.” But the Senate report found that the supposed science behind the theory was junk, and the only proven method of successful interrogation is rapport-building. (“Rapport-building isn’t necessarily being nice to someone,” Jones told me recently over breakfast in Santa Monica. “It’s playing to someone’s weakness. If you’ve got a huge ego, you play to that, right? If you’re insecure, you play to that. If you care about your family, you play to that.”)
Jones and his colleagues spent seven years plowing through 6.3 million pages of internal CIA documents, in cramped secure rooms in a Senate office and a satellite CIA building in Virginia. They found that interrogators had discounted information that seemed to have been given up too easily, repeatedly torturing suspects in search of the imagined “real” answers. In fact, the CIA’s own research in the 1960s and ’70s had found that “when you torture someone, you will get whatever you want; whatever they think you want to hear, they will say it,” regardless of whether it is true, Jones said.
If Driver’s evocation of Jones’s lonely quest is the heart of the film, Bening’s uncanny performance as Feinstein is the tense counterpart. At one point in The Report, the senator asks a frustrated Jones, who is itching to share the report’s explosive conclusions, “Do you work for the report or for me?” With a deep voice, wire-rimmed glasses, and a perfectly coiffed black wig, Bening looks and sounds like Feinstein, but she does not so much imitate as inhabit her. A subtle physical tic—lips pursed in concentration or consternation—brings the characterization to life. Burns said he never considered anyone else for the role, and he and Bening shared with each other YouTube clips of the senator in action that helped inform Bening’s performance.
“It’s a story about a woman who really very much works with a very controlled personality,” Bening told me in a phone interview from London. “I think that her values and her politics have pretty much remained consistent, and she wasn’t going to be thrown off by the circumstances, no matter how serious they were. And she was going to stick to the rules. The fact that she is who she is, to me, sort of makes the story more interesting, because she’s not a firebrand; she’s not a big orator. She’s someone who likes to work pretty much behind the scenes.”
Bening was a student at San Francisco State University when Feinstein became mayor after the assassinations of the supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978, and the two have crossed paths over the years. But Bening said she did not seek out the senator in preparing for the role, because she wanted the substance of the report to be in the forefront. “I did listen to her voice a lot,” Bening explained. “I very much wanted to get that inside of me. I didn’t want to do an impression, but I wanted to give enough of a suggestion that one could believe that that was her and then basically disappear as much as possible.” Feinstein, she added, is “a woman who has a certain politesse and properness about her, and yet she’s a competitor and she’s very much committed to the work she does.”
The film was shot mostly in New York City, on a bare-bones budget in 26 days. The torture scenes play out in mustard-tinted flashbacks, and from the beginning, Burns debated just how much of the grisly interrogations he should depict: “There were certainly drafts that had none and just relied on the language of the report.” But a conversation with Alberto Mora, the former general counsel of the Navy who tried to stop the program, settled the matter. “He said, ‘If you don’t show any of this, you are compounding the sin of the CIA because when they destroyed the tapes, they did it so that people could not have these images in their head.’… [I knew] I had to have enough in there to make it clear what we were really doing to, you know, human beings.”
Driver, a former marine, portrays Jones with a tightly coiled intensity. Burns told me that he believed Driver’s military experience had given him an appreciation of decorum and the rigors of a loyal staffer in a fixed chain of command, making his character’s smoldering frustration at his inability to release the report on his own all the more powerful. Though Burns wrote draft scripts that showed the toll that Jones’s work had taken on his personal life and a romantic partnership that could not survive the report’s completion, the finished film never lets the audience see Jones’s world outside work, with the exception of a couple of attempts at restorative jogging, both of which are interrupted by the press of business. “Adam, as a marine, got the idea of not being the center, the hero,” Jones told me.
Jones himself, now 44 and a security consultant in Washington, retains the wiry charisma that must have helped inspire People magazine to vote him one of its “100 Most Eligible Bachelors” when he was a middle-school teacher with Teach for America in Baltimore two decades ago. It is a point of pride for him that the Intelligence Committee’s report was never leaked, but came out through official channels—and only after a long campaign of vilification in which the CIA falsely accused Jones of hacking into the agency’s computers. In the end, it was just such overreach that helped Feinstein and John McCain persuade the committee to release the redacted summary of the report and to pass an amendment prohibiting the use of such tactics by all U.S. government entities.
“In some respects, it’s a Rorschach,” Burns said of the film. “You can decide Dan Jones is a hero and that the system works and that 500 pages did come out. Or you can look at this and look at the personal cost to one person who had to fight this hard to get our system to simply work the way it’s meant to.”
Jones, for his part, sees a certain irony in the fact that a Hollywood film may be the most powerful tool to correct public misimpressions about torture’s effectiveness that were reinforced by the entertainment industry itself. “If this was, you know, a Transformers version of it, it would not be something I would be associated with,” he told me. “But the fact that Scott was so concerned about the facts and wanted to get it right and wanted to tell the story respectfully, I felt it’s my duty to do some of this and hopefully to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Burns is acutely conscious of his responsibility to grapple with the uncomfortable questions the report raises. “When you look at shows like 24 that gained popularity after 9/11, we did seem, culturally, to move into a new phase of paranoia and fear and revenge,” he told me. “And those are themes that can be very attractive to storytellers and Hollywood—and we were looking for a new villain when the Cold War ended.” He recounted how the New Yorker writer Jane Mayer once asked him, during his research, “if this program would have evolved the same way if the people who hijacked those planes had been white Europeans. And I think that’s a very important question to ask.”
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