Friday, January 3, 2020

Crime and Punishment: Scott Z. Burns’s The Report

Adam Driver in The Report.

After the September 11 attacks, the CIA requested authorization to use what it euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (“EIT” for short) and received authorization from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to do so in July of 2002. (Not that the agency waited to start torturing – the authorization gave legal cover to what was already happening.) She did so after White House discussions with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, and after the Department of Justice drafted what have come to be known as “Torture Memos,” wherein Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo justified the torture of detainees believed to be involved with the 9/11 disasters. As late as 2010, after President Obama had ended EIT with one of his first executive orders, Cheney and Rice were still denying that the CIA had ever tortured prisoners in its charge.

In 2005, CIA official Jose Rodriguez destroyed videotapes of the torture of two suspects in CIA custody, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Their existence was unknown until The New York Times revealed it in 2007. The report understandably caused outrage, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence began to look into it. A young staffer named Daniel Jones reviewed documents covering the same time period and prisoners as the destroyed tapes and discovered that the treatment of the two men was far more brutal than anyone had been led to believe. He also discovered that the torture didn’t work: no actionable intelligence resulted from the horrific conduct.

The shocked committee expanded its investigations, which led to the creation and release of the “Torture Report,” a massive piece of work by Jones and his very small staff, who reviewed over six million documents in the face of CIA insistence that the torture was successful, stonewalling by John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, CIA intrusion into the Senate Committee’s computer networks, and the removal of documents from that network.

This is the fertile dramatic ground covered by the new movie The Report, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Scott Z. Burns (he has directed some television and produced Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and its sequel), starring Adam Driver as Jones, and in what has to be the outstanding supporting performance of the year, Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein, who, when she became chair of the Committee in 2009, became Jones’s boss. Burns ably covers the twists and turns of the investigation and the hurdles that had to be leapt in order to release the report’s executive summary. He gets a wonderful performance out of Driver, and what Bening achieves confirms her place in the pantheon of our great American film actors. She’s astonishing.

The movie begins with Jones making the fateful decision to “relocate” an internal CIA document, dubbed the “Panetta Report” (after Obama’s first director of the CIA, Leon Panetta) from the locked room at a CIA facility where the CIA and the Senate Committee had agreed the research would be conducted, to a locked safe on Senate grounds, a possible violation of the agreement between the two agencies. The Panetta Report is a smoking gun, proving that the CIA’s public statements that although there were abuses of the EIT policy it did lead to important intelligence gains – most famously the capture and execution of Osama bin Laden – were false.

Burns then flashes back to September 11 and its aftermath, and we see two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, former Air Force officers who trained pilots on how to resist torture, pitch EIT to the CIA. Despite neither man’s having experience with actual interrogation, they are able to tell the CIA what it wants most to hear in the aftermath of the attacks, that torture of prisoners would yield effective results. The CIA would eventually pay the two $81 million dollars for their faulty (not to mention immoral) program.

Burns skillfully keeps track of and intercuts two different timelines, the period when EIT is being practiced and the years of Jones’s investigation and writing of the report, totaling more than 6,000 pages in its final version, which has still been unreleased. (Only an almost-400-page executive summary was released in 2016.) Despite Burns’s deft handling of the material, it can still be confusing upon first watch, but his primary method of communicating the intricacies of the policy and the investigation – having Driver deliver dense explanatory monologues – works surprisingly well, due mainly to Driver’s expert portrayal of Jones’s drive and passion. Jones is an unsung American hero who gave six years of his life and an obsessive commitment to detail, to truth, and to justice, however inadequate that justice might be to the crimes committed. (No one was disciplined for their part in the program; many operatives were promoted, and Gina Haspel, who ran and oversaw the “black site” torture prison in Thailand and had a hand in Rodriguez’s destruction of the videotapes, is now CIA Director under Donald Trump.)

Annette Bening in The Report.

Driver delivers his speeches with intelligence and clarity. You can see Jones’s struggle to contain his outrage as he explains to the senior senator from California the convoluted timelines and detailed evidence of what was done to the more than 100 detainees. In a role that is basically that of a man with a desk job, Driver always seems to be in motion. Dashing among the Senate offices, the Department of Justice, the windowless bunker the CIA has given him to work in, and speaking with rapid urgency, he’s mesmerizing. It helps that Driver is a uniquely striking camera subject. His Cubist features rearrange themselves as you watch, making him stunningly handsome at one moment and compellingly ugly the next. That prominent nose can elongate his whole face, like a Modigliani painting, and then recede in the broadness of his features. And his deep-set yet expressive eyes match that adenoidal voice that seems somehow both swallowed up and clear as a bell. Driver’s currently getting a lot of buzz for Noah Baumbach’s dreary Marriage Story, but as good as he is in it, his work here is a far more impressive accomplishment.

He’s more than ably supported by a great cast. It includes Maura Tierney displaying an icy certainty as a CIA officer overseeing the torture, Douglas Hodge as the scam-artist psychologist John Mitchell, Fajer Kaisi as an FBI agent who successfully interrogates Zubaydah by building rapport only to see the CIA take over and begin brutalizing the prisoner, and Tim Blake Nelson as a physician’s assistant who can’t stomach the horrors he’s seen. Joanne Tucker plays another CIA agent who upbraids Jones for work she sees as destroying the agency; Ted Levine is CIA director John Brennan (who evokes our sympathy even as he misleads and misdirects); Scott Shepard is the overly eager Senator Mark Udall; Linda Powell is Feinstein’s level-headed assistant Marcy Morris, often called to calm the waters when Jones and the senator clash. Jon Hamm is Obama’s charismatic chief of staff Denis McDonough, and there are many others. Burns has assembled an amazing array of talent, most of whom barely have more than a line of dialog but manage to make an impression anyway.

If the film were only a lucid illumination of one of the many dark corners of American history, with a distinguished star turn by its leading actor, that would be enough. But The Report has something else in its favor: a performance by one of our greatest actresses at the height of her powers. Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein contributes far more than an impersonation. In the way she holds her head slightly forward of her body, how she sits and walks, how she peers through her glasses, and her low, careful way of speaking, Bening embodies Feinstein, helping us understand her in a way we may not have before. She gets the senator’s careful, measured reactions, her steady weighing of the evidence, her belief in the process, in the Senate as a deliberative body, that has made her more than a few enemies among both liberals and conservatives. This is an astounding piece of acting. Bening’s Feinstein is sparse in her praise and maintains careful control of her passions, so when she is roused to anger – as when Brennan tells her she will be endangering the lives of CIA agents by releasing the report and she reminds him that a bomb was placed outside her daughter’s bedroom window and that she held the dying Harvey Milk in her arms so she’s more than aware of the dangers of public service – her position is unrebuttable. Her rectitude and her bearing can exasperate Jones – when he tells her the CIA has committed murder, her only response is “It’s very disconcerting” – but she also serves as an example to him. When he contemplates leaking the report to a New York Times reporter, he comes to understand that doing so would betray everything Feinstein stands for as well as all she has done for him, and he knows he can’t go through with it. And when his work is finished, her “You did well. Thank you” means far more than any effusive superlatives. It’s maddening that Bening isn’t getting more recognition for her work here and as Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool two years ago (a radically difference performance).

The Record has its flaws. It’s not clear why Feinstein is angry with Jones when Udall exposes the Panetta Report. Wouldn’t it have been a significant part of Jones’s own report, and therefore something he would have made the Committee aware of? There’s so much information packed into the movie that it really does require more than one viewing. And in the one blatant example of bad acting, T. Ryder Smith as Bruce Jessen holds a handkerchief to his nose so effetely he might as well be twirling a mustache. But Burns has done work to be proud of here. We know the story in bits and pieces as it came out over the years, but to see it presented so coherently and completely is an achievement that is both artistic and political. When Bening as Feinstein releases the executive summary, and proclaims, “America is big enough to admit when it’s wrong and confident enough to learn from its mistakes,” and “We are in fact a just and lawful society,” it carries such emotional weight, even more magnified considering our current troubles, it can be overwhelming. And John McCain’s follow-up remark, “It’s about us . . . who we aspire to be. Our enemies act without conscience. We must not,” break your heart, given that the current occupant of the White House has publicly proclaimed himself to be pro-torture.

Many years ago I wrote a letter to Senator Feinstein asking her to take a stand on a particular issue. Her response was exasperating: she carefully laid out how discussion of the issue would proceed in the Senate, and then she explained that after carefully weighing the evidence and arguments, she would then decide her position. Bening has helped me understand Feinstein’s response far better. Would that the other members of the Senate were so deliberative. The Report is a taut, gripping thriller that reminds us of America at both its worst and its best. Both it and Bening deserve far more acclaim than they are currently receiving,

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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