Watch the CIA Get Away With Torture
In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans might generously attribute their embrace of the “dark side,” as former Vice President Dick Cheney described torture, to a collective nervous breakdown. It’s a chapter in our recent history detailed in Jane Mayer’s bestseller, “The Dark Side,” and more broadly in the entertaining and fallacious movie, “Zero Dark Thirty,” but it remains a national shame yet to be confronted by holding those responsible accountable. The end credits of Scott Z. Burns’ expository epic, “The Report,” in theaters Friday, inform us that many associated with the enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) program remain on staff at the CIA or were even promoted, such as current Director Gina Haspel.
Adam Driver plays Dan Jones, the no-nonsense head of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 probe into the CIA’s use of torture during the Bush era. He is assigned a research team and space in the basement of the agency, where he spends most of his time when not reporting to his boss, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening). Within days, Jones finds his access to documents limited and is barred from talking with CIA personnel. Eventually, his staff is diminished to three, and finally to one.
The movie begins in 2012, when a desperate Jones consults with attorney Cyrus Clifford (Corey Stoll). From there, Burns’ screenplay jumps back and forth in time between Jones compiling the report and the horrific accounts it covers. Air Force psychologists James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith) claim to have a foolproof method for extracting information from detainees based on a system called SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), which they weaponize into EIT in order to cultivate “learned helplessness.”
Jones’ investigation reveals that when torture proved ineffective, officials presented information learned by other methods as proof of EIT effectiveness in order to protect the program because, as the film explains, “It’s only legal if it works.” Despite the odds, Jones completes a 7,000-page report that the Obama White House, in the person of Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm), would rather see suppressed for the sake of “post-partisanship,” hilariously reasoning that otherwise, congressional Republicans might be unwilling to work with it on health care legislation.
“The Report” is one of two Adam Driver movies this season, the other being “Marriage Story,” which is on the Oscar track, evidence that he is red-hot at the moment, which can result from a career spent making smart decisions. Known to mainstream audiences as Kylo Ren in the “Star Wars” franchise, in the past he curried favor with critics in such movies as the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” and last year’s “BlacKkKlansman,” for which he was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar. He is in nearly every frame of “The Report,” delivering a performance that spans from focused to exhausted, and finally, muted rage. Driver navigates his way with emotional subtlety, stifling his frustration as he must, expressive despite the limitations Burns’ script imposes upon him.
Likewise Bening, who is highly entertaining as Feinstein, capturing the California senator’s essence with a wig and a dab of lipstick, despite being 20 years younger and looking nothing like her. A nuanced actor with expansive range, Bening’s Feinstein is all business all the time and, like the rest of the cast, similarly confined by the material.
As Obama’s slippery chief of staff, Hamm placates POTUS, the Democrats and Republicans at the same time with a salesman’s shtick he wears like an old suit, albeit a bespoke tailored suit. Ted Levine, as CIA chief John Brennan channels just a bit of the menace that launched his career playing the murderous Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs.” Here he is again the heavy, raiding Jones’ office in an effort to kill the report. When that fails, he redacts most of its key information under false pretext.
Rounding out the cast are a host of cameos, including Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, and Maura Tierney as a Haspel-like CIA officer. Presumably so many big names were drawn to the film by its weighty subject matter, as well as by the opportunity to work with Burns and longtime collaborator Steven Soderbergh, a producer of the movie. Burns wrote the screenplays for four Soderbergh films, including “The Informant!” and his most recent, “The Laundromat.” He also penned the Bond movie, “No Time to Die.” As a director, he is limited to episodic TV and short films, including a feature from 2006, “Pu-239.”
With “The Report,” Burns convincingly conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of the fluorescent-lit CIA basement and prisons where the action plays out, but, as with his screenplay for “The Bourne Ultimatum,” he trades character for plot and pacing, weighting his dialogue with reams of exposition. The result is a feature film crying out to be a documentary. Even so, bravo to Amazon, Burns and his cast for recognizing the importance of the story and delivering it in a format that gives it greater visibility.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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