PARK CITY, Utah—For more than six years, the former Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones led an investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs after 9/11, sifting through thousands of pages documenting torture, abuses of power, and the lack of accountability during the George W. Bush administration. But when Jones talks about his experience, he doesn’t come off as a cynic about the United States. “Over the years, you travel a lot, you talk to a lot of foreign governments, you talk to a lot of citizens,” he said Monday at the Sundance Film Festival, reflecting on a career that also included a stint as an international FBI agent. The United States is “a beacon, whether you want us to be or not … The building of post–World War II institutions, we’re responsible for that. In the War on Terror, we slipped.”
Jones is the subject of a new film written and directed by Scott Z. Burns called The Report, which debuted at Sundance on January 26 and has already been acquired by Amazon for a reported $14 million. A frequent collaborator of Steven Soderbergh, Burns is best-known for his meticulous, fact-based screenplays for films including The Informant! and Contagion. In his new movie, Burns takes Jones’s 6,700-page report and somehow boils it down to a comprehensible narrative. Adam Driver stars as Jones, while Annette Bening plays his boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein. Burns and Jones spoke with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, in Park City, Utah, on Monday about the making of the film, the delicate political lines it crosses, and the Obama administration’s role in trying to suppress the report.
What Jones uncovered was that the CIA had long misrepresented the success of its “enhanced-interrogation procedures,” which some 119 prisoners were subjected to during the Bush era. The protocols—which included waterboarding, placing people in stress positions, sleep deprivation, and simulated burials—were devised by the Air Force psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, neither of whom had any prior experience with real interrogation. The psychologists said they had reverse engineered highly specific military training designed to prepare soldiers for being questioned as prisoners of war, and claimed that the process was scientific. In reality, as Jones found, enhanced interrogation never secured any crucial information in the War on Terror and more often than not would produce false answers or cause prisoners to totally shut down. Because the prisoners “looked a little different, spoke a different language, it made it easier” for CIA agents to torture them, Jones said.
The desperation for information post–9/11, along with the CIA’s tradition of secrecy, even within the agency, helped keep the program alive without much scrutiny—Jones alleges that Bush himself was not briefed about it until 2006. “Bureaucracies get such a bad name, but they prevent bad ideas from” being carried out, Jones said. “In the CIA, you lack bureaucracy.”
Burns weaves a sense of compartmentalization into every part of the film. The scenes of torture themselves take place in secret black sites, blank environments where accountability is the last thing on anyone’s mind. CIA discussions, led by a composite character played by Maura Tierney (largely modeled on now–CIA Director Gina Haspel), are clinical and remote. Polite boardroom conversations with figures such as John Yoo (Pun Bandhu), who wrote the notorious “torture memos,” help justify waterboarding and abuse by quietly manipulating legal language. And Jones’s own quest to investigate takes place in a series of oppressive, often windowless office spaces, anonymous concrete buildings near the nation’s capital that resemble torture chambers.
The Report is just as tough on the Obama administration, presenting Barack Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm) and the CIA head John Brennan (Ted Levine) as infuriating roadblocks to Jones’s pursuit of the truth. McDonough, and by extension Obama, seeks mostly to leave the past in the past, acknowledging the CIA’s failures while redacting the most demoralizing parts of the report. Brennan, meanwhile, sticks to the company line that torture was effective at points, while admitting the agency’s overreach. “The allegiance that these people have to that organization supersedes a lot of things,” Burns said. “It’s not even clear to us … how widely known the enhanced-interrogation program was within the CIA. It was not something everybody knew [about]. But they tend to protect their own.”
Brennan has since become an icon among some for his voracious criticism of Donald Trump, who last year revoked the CIA lifer’s security clearance. “I love the fact that John Brennan and a lot of these people are leading the charge against what’s going on in our government right now,” Burns said. But the filmmaker still wanted The Report to be brutally honest, even if that meant taking aim at more beloved figures. “Most of [Brennan’s] dialogue in the movie I took from the CIA’s official response, from speeches he’s made, from his comments at the Council on Foreign Relations. I didn’t make that up,” Burns added.
In another pointed moment, The Report negatively references Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty, which suggests that torture played a role in providing information that eventually led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. When asked about the movie, a slightly chagrined-looking Burns said he was a friend and admirer of Bigelow and the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, but that he felt the movie was rooted in a false CIA narrative. “Hollywood people don’t always fact-check stories,” he said. “I don’t think the narrative is accurate … But [Bigelow and Boal] were fed a narrative by very credible people … I think they made an amazing film about the story they were given.”
The pop-culture heroism of Zero Dark Thirty is at the root of what the real-life Jones is still looking to dispel (the movie’s version of Jones derides the TV show 24 for its frequent endorsement of ends-justify-the-means thinking). The Report is a film whose champion is not a brawny soldier or a secret agent, but a thorough, committed, pencil-pushing investigator, someone searching for moral clarity in a decade suffused with confusion and dread. “As [Jones is] trying to [compile] this report, this story [about the usefulness of torture] springs up in popular culture, and everybody embraces it. We all embraced it,” Burns said ruefully. His film aims to undo that narrative—thoughtfully, methodically, and quite powerfully.