Interrogating the interrogators: ‘The Report’

By Anwen Crawford
This tale of the investigation into CIA torture during the War on Terror places too much faith in government procedure

Adam Driver in The Report

On December 9, 2014, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) released its bipartisan report into prisoner interrogations by the CIA during the administration of President George W. Bush. Known officially as the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, and colloquially as the “torture report”, this document was the result of nearly six years’ investigation with which the CIA did its best not to cooperate.

The version of the torture report released that December is, in fact, only an executive summary, totalling a little over 500 pages. The full, classified report apparently comes in at 6700 pages – but whether that version will ever be made public is unknown. It seems unlikely. Even the summary – which remains available for download via the US Senate website – is riddled with CIA redactions. But you wouldn’t know this from The Report , a new film that dramatises the SSCI investigation, and which concludes, after two hours of furrowed brows and dialogue that’s dense with acronyms, on a note of quiet assurance, as if good had somehow prevailed. “There is a reason why we carry the banner of a great and just nation,” remarked SSCI chairperson and Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, played here by Annette Bening, as she submitted the report to the Senate. Some may beg to differ, both with the banner and the reasoning.

Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, The Report is stylistically indebted to earlier procedural dramas like Tom McCarthy’s much-awarded Spotlight (2015), an account of The Boston Globe’s investigative reporting into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, and, naturally, Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 Watergate film, All the President’s Men. As in that film, The Report interpolates real news clips of US politicians into its fictionalised version of events, but it lacks Pakula’s sense of American governance as a bottomless murk of self-interest and corruption. Though a good deal of the action takes place inside basements and bunkers, the moral trajectory of Burns’s film is always headed towards the disinfectant of sunlight.

The Report also suffers the dramatic handicap of not being set, as those earlier films were, at newspaper offices, which might at least have afforded the script a bit of ensemble dynamism. Instead, lead SSCI investigator Dan Jones (Adam Driver) is left largely on his own, though he emerges periodically from his labours to shout appalled discoveries at Feinstein and her colleagues. Burns has worked frequently as a scriptwriter for Steven Soderbergh, and his schema here, as with his script for Soderbergh’s The Informant! (2009), is ordinary joe struggling in the face of misdeeds and misdirection. But Driver is a more interesting, less transparent actor than this allows, one whose onscreen presence is partly created by the sense that he’s always keeping something to himself. It would have been nice to see what he could do with a part that gave him a knottier set of loyalties to unsnarl. Nor is Bening, in her role, given much to work at, reduced to setting her face in an expression of grave determination at appropriate moments.

The film moves at a fair clip, nothing like the grind of government bureaucracy, sketching in Jones’s early career at the FBI and his subsequent appointment as a Senate staffer with a specialty in intelligence. In 2009, he winds up in the guarded basement of a CIA building to begin investigations into the agency’s torture of its prisoners. Yes, the world’s most powerful security organisation did select the physical site of an investigation into its own malfeasance, and it controlled the secure computer server onto which relevant documents were, at its discretion, uploaded – obstructions that become important subplots in the film. Meanwhile, flashbacks – filmed with busy handheld camera, and tinted nicotine yellow – trace the origins of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation methods” – the agency’s preferred descriptor – during the days and weeks that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and President Bush’s subsequent declaration of a new military paradigm, the War on Terror. Captured men were classified as “unlawful combatants”, rather than as prisoners of war, and were held at unofficial, CIA-run prisons, known as black sites, in countries that included Afghanistan, Thailand and Lithuania. “We’ve got to spend time in the shadows,” said Vice President Dick Cheney, five days after the September 11 attacks, all but declaring that the Bush administration intended to break the law.

But this was hardly the first time that a US administration, or the country’s security agencies, had been involved in torture. That fact is alluded to in The Report without ever being properly addressed; instead, blame appears to lie most squarely with two CIA contractors, James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith). This pair of former military psychologists were, without doubt, deeply involved in the torture that the CIA oversaw during the War on Terror. But Burns, in his efforts to distil a complex history into watchable drama, makes it seem that none of what was done would have been done without their PowerPoint presentation to eager CIA hierarchs on techniques such as waterboarding. He personalises the villains and, in doing so, diminishes the scope of US power and the extent to which that power has been abused.

More troubling still is the way in which The Report includes scenes of torture among its early flashbacks. These scenes are brief but explicit enough to discomfit, and if that is their intended effect, I still wonder what is gained by depicting what we either already know was done, or can figure out well enough from description. Nothing is gained in terms of story, because torture extracts no stories, no narratives from its victims – though torturers will insist otherwise. The real effect of these scenes – perhaps an unintended effect, but a palpable one – is to reproduce within a fictional space what torture actually does in life, which is to dehumanise those who are subject to it, denying them agency and stripping them of individuation. There is really only one speaking part in The Report afforded to a brown-skinned, Arabic-speaking man, and that’s Fajer Al-Kaisi as Ali Soufan, an FBI agent who clashed with the CIA over its actions. As for the rest of these men, they remain in the film what their torturers took them for: less than human.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Adam Driver in The Report

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