"The Report"-- Revisiting Bush Administration War Criminals
Very few of the policymakers who enabled the grotesque, systematic torture of terror suspects in the aftermath of 9/11 have faced consequences for their actions. Many of them are still prominent in public life. Most are far more familiar than Dan Jones, the obsessive author of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program—better known as the “Torture Report.” Jones, portrayed by the talented actor (and improbable sex symbol) Adam Driver, deserves to be recognized as a hero, and the human rights abuses he meticulously exposed deserve to be memorialized.
The perpetrators deserve to face justice, but this perfectly adequate Amazon Original might be as close as they ever get. Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, The Bourne Ultimatum), The Report belongs to the rich tradition of Beltway procedurals, stretching from 1976’s All the President’s Men to 2017’s The Post—real-life thrillers set in wonky, earnest Washington, a city that on film consists entirely of marble monuments, brutalist office buildings, parking garages, and the odd Georgetown mansion.
It’s a well-established template, and well suited to a story that’s inherently difficult to film: A tiny team of Senate staffers, led by Jones, spends years in a windowless basement reviewing millions of emails to reconstruct the facts of the CIA’s torture program under George W. Bush, and then some of the most powerful figures in Barack Obama’s administration nearly prevent the resulting document from being released.
What makes "The Report" unusual is that the events it depicts took place only a few years ago, and the cast—Annette Bening as Senator Dianne Feinstein, Jon Hamm as Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as CIA Director John Brennan—is tasked with representing people who still wield enormous influence.
The film gets the main facts right. Beginning almost immediately after 9/11 and continuing for most of the Bush presidency, the CIA authorized a secret torture program based on zero scientific evidence, one that clearly violated international treaties to which the United States is a signatory.
Dozens of terror suspects, many of them totally innocent, were seized in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan and taken to black sites hosted by U.S. allies, where they were subjected to horrific interrogation procedures. CIA officials poured water on rags over their faces to simulate drowning, slammed them against walls, forced them to listen to high-decibel heavy metal overnight to prevent them from sleeping, stripped them naked and blindfolded them, and sealed them alive in virtual coffins. At least one detainee died in captivity as a result of these methods; countless others were physically injured, suffer from PTSD, have been radicalized against the U.S. in ways they weren’t previously, and can never be fairly tried in court after what they’ve been through.
As "The Report" takes great pains to emphasize, not a single bit of actionable intelligence came out of any of this savagery. No ticking time bombs were disarmed, no terrorist plots were foiled. Detainees only ever confessed to lies or to information the CIA had already collected through the slow, diligent work of earning trust that torture completely undermines.
The program was openly encouraged by Vice President Dick Cheney; defended by neoconservative pundits like the late Charles Krauthammer; legally justified in a memo by Justice Department official John Yoo (played by Pun Bandhu, Yoo is now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of a recent New York Times op-ed arguing against Donald Trump’s impeachment); and designed and executed by a pair of almost comical scam artists who pitched the CIA on their sadistic methods and made off with millions in public funding. James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), the Air Force psychologists responsible for the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Program, are accurately portrayed as such obvious frauds that it’s hard to fathom how the CIA entrusted them with interrogating terror suspects—a reaction that many CIA officers who witnessed their dehumanizing tactics firsthand shared.
To "The Report"’s great credit, it doesn’t let the Obama administration off the hook for its efforts to bury the report.
If torture is the Bush administration’s crime, the coverup—and the fact that today Bush gets fawning media coverage for painting veterans, watching football with Ellen Degeneres, and offering candy to Michelle Obama—is mostly on the Obama administration.
Arguably the central villain of the film is John Brennan, now a regular talking head on MSNBC, where he excoriates the Trump administration for its complicity in all kinds of corruption and criminality.
But as dramatized in "The Report", on Brennan’s watch, the CIA illegally spied on Senate staffers (for which Brennan personally apologized to Feinstein) and tried to intimidate Dan Jones with baseless criminal charges, simply to protect the reputation of the agency. The authoritarian threat Brennan denounces in the Trump White House was made possible by officials like him.
I've started watching this but since I'm familiar with the basic story and the gruesome torture program run by the Bush administration, it's not super captivating. Still, it's good they made this and I hope it gets some needed attention.