How The Report condenses the post-9/11 CIA torture report into a devastating paranoid thriller

The title sequence of The Report includes a simple but telling detail. At first, the words “The Torture Report” appear on screen; then, before our eyes, we see the word “Torture” redacted by what looks like a stroke from a Sharpie marker.

The Report stars Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones, the Senate staffer who spent seven long years, beginning in 2007, investigating the CIA’s use of torture — or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” as they were euphemistically called. The aim of that CIA program was to ostensibly gain useful intelligence from detainees in the wake of 9/11.

But the program, as Jones discovered while digging through reams of the CIA’s papers and emails and reports, didn’t work. The political battle that ensued over how much of the report should be released to the public and what would be redacted was furious and heated.

An executive summary of Jones’s report was released in 2014; the full report has not yet been released. Filmmaker Scott Z. Burns, who’s written several films including Contagion and The Informant!, faced the task of turning that summary into a compelling film, which he then directed as well. The result is both measured and compelling, recalling paranoid political thrillers from the 1970s (the most famous of which is likely All the President’s Men) and explaining the CIA’s program in painfully understandable fashion. It’s heavy material, but the movie is riveting.

I recently spoke with Burns and Jones in New York about the film and their mutual feelings on why The Report needed to be made. The pair were in town to receive the Sydney Lumet Award for Integrity in Entertainment for the film, at the Human Rights First awards gala. Our conversation, which has been condensed and edited, follows.

Alissa Wilkinson

Something that struck me, watching The Report, was the overwhelming feeling of paranoia — not just because it reminds of cinema’s great paranoid thrillers, but because a sense of paranoia is pervasive throughout the movie. It keeps mounting over the course of the film, and I wonder if you felt any paranoia, given the sensitive topic, while making the film, too?

Scott Z. Burns

I’m a huge fan of the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. So every week before we were shooting, the whole crew would come over to my house and we would watch The Parallax View, obviously All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor — all of those movies. I love those movies, and I think that the fact that they were all released around Watergate is something that we need to look at — it was a moment where we had real doubt about some of our institutions. I feel like we’re in the same place today, and probably it’s going to generate a lot of the same art.

Alissa Wilkinson

What was it like for you, Dan, to relive that time on screen?

Daniel J. Jones

Well, it was a seven-year journey driven by senators, doing their constitutional responsibilities to oversee the executive branch. As Scott just said, how could that be more relevant than it is right now?

But it was seven years of my life, and the life of many senators who served in that committee. Then Scott had this incredible task. It’s a 525-page report, and it took seven years of labor to research it, write it, and then get it out. And Scott had to go put it in a 120-page script. He did such a fantastic job of really conveying what’s in that report, and the process, and the importance of oversight — all of that in two hours.

But it is tough to watch sometimes. It throws you back in that moment.

Alissa Wilkinson

You were so deeply embedded in working on the report for so long that I imagine at times it was possible to lose the forest for the trees. Does watching The Report help to reestablish the forest?

Daniel J. Jones

When I see the film, it reminds me of what was going on in the background [as I worked on the report], and how serious it was. But when you’re working on a report of that significance, you sort of have blinders. It’s a relentless pursuit in one direction and you don’t let yourself get distracted. Then you step back and reflect on those seven years and you realize, Oh wow. It felt crazy at the time, but looking back, it feels even crazier. And the only reason I didn’t see it as that nuts at the moment was that I couldn’t. I had to keep pushing and pushing and pushing forward and think about solutions.

Alissa Wilkinson

And it’s intense and exhausting work.

Daniel J. Jones

It was too important not to complete, and not to get right. So you just keep going.

“The Report” - European Premiere - 63rd BFI London Film Festival
Adam Driver and Daniel J. Jones at the film’s European premiere in London in October.
David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage

Alissa Wilkinson

Scott, did you feel at all like that when you were writing the movie?

Scott Z. Burns

I wrote a lot of different drafts of this movie and really struggled to get my arms around it and turn it into something that would fit in a two-hour movie. Really, I didn’t want it to be longer than that, because I didn’t want it to look like a homework assignment. I wanted it to look like a political thriller.

At one point, I took the script to [Michael Clayton and Bourne series screenwriter] Tony Gilroy, who is a friend of mine and someone I admire greatly. We sat down for lunch, and he was not happy with the draft that I had done at that point. I was really disheartened.

But he looked at me and said, “No one else is going to tell this story.” And I wrote down in my notebook, “No one else is going to tell this story.”

Writing a screenplay is not nearly the undertaking that Dan and the team he was working with went through. But I think I began to understand the struggle to put together a narrative that is this far-flung and have it be factual, but also have it tell a story. Because this [torture] program is a story, and it’s a story that begins with some misunderstandings about 9/11 and some feelings that the CIA had about what could have been done differently to stop those terrorist attacks.

And it extends up until the moment that we’re living in right now, where you encounter all of these other concepts along the way. You run into the idea of the unitary executive [a theory that proposes the president can control the entire executive branch]. You run into the idea of having the CIA do things in secret, even though we have a committee in Congress that is designed to provide oversight for them. You see this battle between Congress and the executive branch that we’re continuing to live through.

But I had the great advantage of the report being completed. Dan didn’t have that, obviously. This was something he had to really cobble together and make it into a story and show how the program evolved.

Daniel J. Jones

Let me say what Scott won’t say. It took two years for the tape investigation, and then five years to create the report itself. This film also took five years, and also had its ups and downs. No one made money on this film — nobody, not Adam [Driver], not Jon [Hamm, who plays White House chief of staff Denis McDonough], not Scott. It felt like a story that needed to be told, and needed to reach a larger audience. I can’t imagine anyone else but Scott and this team doing it.

Scott Z. Burns

As Dan said, there were lots of times while making it that I felt like I had to keep going because he kept going. Or when I talked to other people, like Alberto Mora, who was the general counsel for the Navy who stood up against [the torture] program. Or Col. Steve Kleinman, who was a military investigator whose life was in danger. Or [former FBI Supervisory Special Agent] Ali Soufan, who did so much amazing work to keep us all safe. When you feel like you’re telling their story, you really can’t quit.

Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones in The Report.
Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones in The Report.
Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios

Alissa Wilkinson

One thing I thought about a lot while watching The Report was language — how language is used by the powerful, or how it can be used to obscure the truth, to paper over human dignity or hide reality.

Scott Z. Burns

So I’m going to nerd out for a minute.

There’s a play called Translations, by Brian Friel. There’s a line in the play that goes something like, “Remember, Lieutenant, it’s possible to become imprisoned in a linguistic contour that no longer matches the landscape of fact.”

I have always been fascinated with language and euphemisms. You think about a phrase like “the final solution” in Nazi Germany; then you think about how that must have played, because if it was a “solution,” it’s a good thing. Then you look at a phrase like “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which sounds to me like ad copy — and I’m a former copywriter.

I’m fascinated and frightened by how people change the “linguistic contour” and it no longer matches the “landscape of fact.” The CIA has a website called CIA Saved Lives; that’s also their legal position. That’s sort of convenient. Or, there’s a point in the movie where a character refers to “actual simulations.”

Part of what gives people agency to do these things is the language that they shroud them in. And so “walling” may sound kind of benign, until you see it. [Walling is a method of torture in which the subject is repeatedly slammed into the wall.]

Daniel J. Jones

Tummy slap.” How about that one?

Scott Z. Burns

I really was upset about the appropriation of euphemistic language to conceal things that are torture. It is stunning to me that in the initial CIA communiques after 9/11, they called it torture, and then someone must’ve said, “That’s against the law. We need to come up with a new name for it.” That is very upsetting to me. It should be upsetting to everybody.

Daniel J. Jones

During the Inquisition, instead of calling it torture, it was called “putting them to the question.” It was basically “enhanced interrogation techniques.” So it’s been with us for a while.

Scott Z. Burns

That had a lot to do with our decision to actually show some of these techniques in the film, which was not an easy decision. It was probably the thing that we struggled with the most. When we would do screenings, that was the thing that I was most interested in hearing: Did we do so much that it took you out of the movie?

But early on, when I was still researching, Alberto Mora asked me, “Are you going to show torture?” I think I naively assumed that he wouldn’t want me to, so I said, “I’m not sure. I’m very anxious about shooting those scenes. What do you think?”

He said, “If you don’t do it, aren’t you doing exactly what the CIA did?”

That really landed on me — the responsibility of telling the story that people need. When we have screenings, I see people sort of look away for a minute, and it upsets me. I’m not here to make people witness things that are going to be uncomfortable for them. But this happened in all of our names. And so we do have to understand what was done.

When you talk to someone like Colonel Kleinman, or you talk to someone like Mark Fallon or Alberto Mora, or some of the Navy SEALs, they’re furious that a civilian agency in the executive branch basically put them at risk for generations going forward because they surrendered the moral high ground for nothing. We didn’t get any intel. We didn’t keep anybody safe. What we did do was put our military at risk, for who knows how long.

Daniel J. Jones

And massively undermined our own traditional system. The trial for the first case is set for January 2021, and most experts indicate that’s a best-case best scenario. There was just another hearing, all about torture. Every hearing down in Guantanamo Bay is about torture in some way or another. It’s 20 years after 9/11, and no justice has been served to the families who lost people that day.

Annette Bening as Sen. Dianne Feinstein in The Report.
Annette Bening as Sen. Dianne Feinstein in The Report.
Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios

Scott Z. Burns

I remember a stunning piece from the report. [To Dan] His name isn’t redacted in that, is it?

Daniel J. Jones

No.

Scott Z. Burns

So there’s a story of a CIA lawyer named Jonathan Fredman who went to Guantanamo and met with the Army’s legal teams. He said, We’re doing this [torture] program and it’s working — just letting you know. They said, this is against the uniform code of military justice. It’s stunning to me that the CIA really wanted the armed services to participate in this.

In almost every interview Daniel and I have ever done, the most upsetting part is that there are people at the CIA who really wanted to do the right thing. They wanted to keep people safe. And there are people at the FBI like Ali Soufan who really took their job seriously.

Colonel Kleinman told me something a couple of weeks ago that was very moving to me. He said that his brother is a firefighter, and when there’s a fire in California — as there is now — his brother runs toward the fire. But civilians should run away from the fire. Kleinman said, “After 9/11 we had professionals — the military intelligence people, the analysts, all of those people — to move toward that fire and go in and keep us safe.”

We’re allowed to have panic and anxiety. We’re civilians. Those were the professionals. They did not have, in my estimation, the right to go in there and surrender the moral high ground and the integrity of our country and for nothing. Colonel Kleinman will say, “People like me go in and figure this shit out.” That’s what they do — without compromising who we are.

Daniel J. Jones

Also, torture is not effective. It’s great for getting false answers and getting confessions, perfect for that. You want a false confession, that’s what you’ll get. But if you really want intelligence, that’s not the way you do it. We allowed this covert program not only subvert our values, but also put us in great danger.

Alissa Wilkinson

And make the whole thing look like it’s about revenge.

Scott Z. Burns

I was working with [New Yorker reporter] Jane Mayer [who reported extensively on the program], and one day I said to her, “When you did your research, why did this happen?” And she said, “You know, honestly, there are a lot of people who would say, we just wanted to kick some Arab ass.”

And that makes me sick.

The Report opens in theaters on November 15. It will begin streaming on Amazon Prime on November 29.