Political Film Review #603

THE REPORT EXPOSES HOW WASHINGTON WORKS WHEN TRUTH IS DANGEROUS

The 2009 book George W. Bush, War Criminal? Identifies 269 war crimes, but the one that attracted the most attention was torture. Senator Dianne Feinstein (played by Annette Bening) was eager to expose the practice, which yielded nothing of value according to the CIA. The Report is the story of how a Senate report was prepared, blocked, and then released by focusing on the principal investigator, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver). Directed by Scott Z. Burns (who co-wrote the screenplay of The Laudromat), the film literally provides flesh and blood, a docudrama so that the history will not be buried. The first clue of what the film provides occurs in the initial credits: The original title appears to have been The Torture Report, as the word “Torture” is blacked out on the screen while filmviewers watch, and indeed that title would have been far more honest about contents of the film than implied censors will allow.

The film begins when Jones, who wants to make a difference in Washington, applies for a job in 2003. He is first hired by the FBI and in 2007 joins the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee. When Senator Dianne Feinstein is elevated to chair the committee in 2009, Jones is assigned the job of compiling facts about Bush’s torture project, known as “enhanced interrogation,” with only two coworkers. Ali Soufan (playing himself) informs him quite early in his interviews that the only successful technique to extract information from terrorists is to seek to bond with them. Nevertheless, Soufan was pushed aside when the CIA paid two psychologists, James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and John “Bruce” Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), $80 million to transform a program to help American soldiers endure torture if captured into a technique for extracting information from terrorists at various black sites. Some torture scenes are quite graphic and definitely not for the fainthearted (waterboarding and more). Although Jones discovers that the project is directed by Vice President Dick Cheney until Bush presumably finds out, many other officials are culpable, notably the Justice Department lawyer, John Yoo (Pun Bandhu), who believes that torture only occurs when a major organ of the body is put in jeopardy (which describes exactly what waterboarding does). Conscientious filmviewers will be frustrated that many names are not displayed as they parade on the screen, presumably yet another blacking out to please politically-oriented censors.

In five years, Jones completes a report, but then the film takes an even darker turn, as the text is not immediately released despite the 2009 executive order by President Barack Obama ending the program, evidently prompting Feinstein to begin the investigation with a supposedly more friendly administration. However, Obama wanted to look forward rather than litigating the Bush administration. (He proposed no law to outlaw torture and did not object to similar practices at Guantánamo.) As the film indicates, neither CIA Director John Brennan (Ted Levine) nor State Department Secretary John Kerry are eager to get the report out. CIA officials instead falsely insist that they prevented various terrorist incidents due to “enhanced interrogation.” Indeed, when the CIA learns of the existence of the report, they send a squad to invade Jones’s room, find a CIA document on a computer, and threaten to sue him for espionage. At this point Feinstein pushes back, objecting that the CIA has breached the separation of powers by conducting a break-in without judicial authority. Then the CIA indicates that the report will be allowed, provided that national security secrets are removed, resulting in so many blackout redactions that the report has little content worthy of publication. Feinstein then works through legislative channels to solve the problem—release in 2014 of a summary of the report (525 pages) without redactions. The full 2,855-page report can now be purchased on the Internet, entitled Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program. The one senator with firsthand experience of torture does not appear until near the end of the film: A clip of John McCain appears, arguing on the floor of the Senate in 2015 for a law removing most loopholes from the prior ban on torture. In the last scene Daniel Jones walks away from the Capitol without fanfare, leaving filmviewers puzzled about his fate as Donald Trump endorses torture in principle.

Jones has formed two investigative groups—the Penn Quarter Group in 2016 and Advance Democracy in 2018. Today, he is a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard.

The Political Film Society has nominated The Report as best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2019.  MH