Just the Facts: Scott Z. Burns’ The Report Focuses on the Battle to Expose the CIA’s Torture Policy

“Enhanced interrogation” was the phrase the Bush-Cheney administration used to describe the methods the CIA employed under its watch to try to coax information from detainees following the 9/11 attacks. To others, it was a cynical euphemism for “torture.”

In 2009, Daniel J. Jones, a key member of the staff of Senator Dianne Feinstein, was tasked with investigating the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, following the revelation that hundreds of hours of tapes of interrogation sessions had been destroyed. Jones’s 525-page report on the excesses, ineffectiveness, and inherent corruption of the program, a summary of 6,700 classified pages, was issued in 2014—not without some aggressive pushback within the government. Ultimately, the report led to the November 2015 passage of the McCain-Feinstein Amendment banning any future use of torture.

In The Report, writer-director Scott Z. Burns focuses on Jones’s arduous, diligent effort to uncover the truth about this shameful recent chapter in our history. Adam Driver, also on screens this season in Marriage Story and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, is compelling as Jones, and Annette Bening makes a persuasive Feinstein. Jon Hamm plays Denis McDonough, President Obama’s pragmatic chief of staff. Driver, Bening, Hamm, Burns, producer Jennifer Fox, and Daniel Jones himself were all on hand for a press conference at September’s Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon Studios opens the film in select theaters on November 15.

Driver recalled, “I remember thinking I had such a layman’s understanding of that event [the report’s release] when it happened and I just assumed it was out of my own ignorance, which it probably was, that I didn’t know more details or the level of people pushing a wrong agenda. And Scott told me, no, actually when this report came out, there wasn’t a talking head or physical person that you could look at to represent what the report embodied. But there were a lot of people in the opposition who looked at it as a partisan issue that were more than eager to say how it was wrong… Dan, as a Senate staffer, couldn’t be the person to plant his flag publicly and make a statement—it goes against the decorum of [that job]. So this seemed like an amazing opportunity to present something that was fair and balanced about how we identify as a country morally within ourselves and as a country overall.”

Hamm stated, “Scott wrote a phenomenal story about this thing that happened to all of us, as citizens of the United States in a way that was understandable and dramatic and terrifying. For me, it was an exciting opportunity to work on a project that has real-life repercussions and also resonates with the current political climate. And in fact, we seem to be living in an accountability-free zone. The story reminds you that there are systems in place to hold people accountable, and when they can work, they work. When people like Dan do their jobs and tell the truth and when people like Dianne Feinstein does her job and gets it out there, people actually get to know the truth. My character, in particular, has to kind of navigate this nether space in between both administrations and has to say, okay, this happened. It wasn’t under our watch, but it still happened. That doesn’t mean we can ignore it. Somebody lights a fire in your house, it’s still a fire, you have to put it out. That’s what attracted me to play this guy who’s spinning plates and dealing with the problem in front of him.”

Bening said, “I read it and thought it was an excellent story, an important story to tell, and a privilege to do because often as actors we’re asked to take political positions on things and shine a spotlight on issues that are important. Speaking for myself, sometimes I choose to do that, sometimes I don’t. But this is the best thing we can do as actors, being fortunate enough to be a part of something like this that really does have something to say. And honestly, it’s a very important piece of our history as Americans that we need to be reminded of. The right thing did happen to a degree.”

Annette Bening and Adam Driver

She added, “One of the things I need to emphasize is that there were many people in the CIA who refused to cooperate with this program. They either asked to be transferred out or they just refused. These people of course are nameless, because there’s so much about the entire operation that’s still secret. I hope that message gets through to the public, that this is not in any way an attack on the CIA, it’s an attack on what happened to a group of people who were under enormous pressure from 9/11 to do something.”

Bening also noted, “One of the things I was surprised by, and I hadn’t followed it closely, was how eloquent Dianne Feinstein was, as was [John] McCain. They both gave incredible speeches when it was finally put out. And she basically said the strength of our system is measured by how we respond when we make mistakes. And so here we are, acknowledging something that happened. We’re saying to the world that we did something wrong and we are now rectifying it. The McCain-Feinstein Amendment reaffirmed that no American can participate in this kind of behavior [as stated in] the Army field manual, and from now on when anyone is taken prisoner, the International Red Cross has to be invited in. It’s just reaffirming what was on the books before.”

Driver observed, “One of the biggest things that was shocking to me, even just taking emotion out of it, was the idea that torture was an effective way of getting information, seeing that it’s so well documented throughout time that it’s not useful. It’s like somebody coming along and saying, we should change cars to square wheels and everyone kind of going along with it, even though we have a lot of facts that the opposite is true.”

Driver enlisted in the Marines after 9/11, and one journalist asked him if he saw that choice in a different light after making The Report. “No,” he firmly responded. “They were two separate things. You couldn’t find a community more against using torture as an effective way of getting information than the military. And that’s well documented. I joined after September 11th out of a sense of patriotism and a kind of retribution. But then the politics of joining the military for me personally went away. Once you’re actually within your unit and you’re working with four or five guys and then 40 guys, 200 guys, the politics of what’s going on outside, left or right, is really gone and it becomes this nucleus. I’m just here for these five guys on my team. Politics wasn’t my job, so this has nothing to do with regret about having joined the military. You’re not going to find an organization that’s run by humans that’s not fallible, which is not an excuse, but they’re not necessarily binary. [Making the film] doesn’t make me regret my feelings then or now.”

Burns, making his feature directing debut after writing four films for Steven Soderbergh (The Informant!, Contagion, Side Effects, and The Laundromat), added, “I want to really underscore what Adam said. The military in America is very different from the CIA, and this was a program that the CIA created. There are actually hundreds of generals who have gone on record [about this]. Every United States service member who goes in the field, when they get captured, they can take a card out of their wallet and say you need to treat me in accordance with the Geneva convention. That has now been squandered for untold generations of Americans who might be called to defend their country. And that has a lot to do with why I wanted to make this film.”

Jones was humble about his role in helping recover America’s moral compass. “The film is really about the report itself. It’s a 6,700-page classified document with 38,000 footnotes. I did the best I could to summarize that into a 525-page document where there were 2,700 footnotes with redactions. And Scott did a fantastic job in 130 pages of script, where it tells not only the facts but reports on the fight of senators to record this part of history and be transparent and release it publicly. When I first met Scott, I was still in the Senate. Part of my job after the report was released was to talk with people, talk to investigative journalists, talk to people writing books and people in the creative community like Scott. And Scott quickly set himself apart from the others because he was asking really detailed questions about nuances in the report. He’s been very serious about the facts and we share that in common. I’m really proud of what he did.”

Jones insisted, “I was a conduit for senators. They are the ones in power, they are the elected officials. And I feel grateful that I was given that responsibility [of compiling the report]. But in the end, it’s the senators who deserve the credit for perseverance and fighting this battle.”

Producer Fox went out of her way to praise the movie’s real-life subject. “There’s that point in the movie—and it happened—where someone says to Dan, you’re the only one looking at this, so if you don’t continue, it may not come out. We’re so grateful that he kept doing his job, because now we know.”

Surprisingly, writer-director Burns “had no consultations with Senator Feinstein whatsoever. I did speak to her office early on, that’s how I was able to find Dan Jones. I know that the senator’s position has always been that she’s not really interested in movies. In fact, I hope at some point someone will tell her that there’s a line in the movie that I wrote about how it’s not her job to enforce the law with lights and cameras. I have a lot of respect for her doing exactly that.”

Burns also talked about the genesis of the project. “I’ve written a couple of scripts that Steven Soderbergh ended up doing and I loved my partnership with Steven over the last 12, 14 years. Side Effects was a movie that I’d originally written for myself. and I had a hard time getting financing and Steven wanted to do a psychological thriller. So when he decided to do that, he said, you know, you need to write something for yourself. And so I started on this. A lot of times I feel the things I end up writing pick me rather than I pick them, and I just couldn’t get away from this story. Obviously, what Dan did is far more important than any movie that I’ll ever write, but I think there is this parallel that I connected with, when you work in Hollywood for a long time and want to be a director and you try and you get shot down and you go back and keep working. I think I connected a lot with Dan’s perseverance and hard work. And so at some point I felt that I needed to follow his lead—I was really inspired by what he did. We went from having a 50-day schedule to a 26-day schedule, and we went from having an $18 million budget to an $8 million budget. Even with the most amazing ensemble I could have ever hoped for, getting Hollywood to get behind a movie like this was impossible.”

Burns concluded, “There’s a few moments in the movie that I hope people walk away with. One of them is very early on when Dan had done the report that’s still classified about the CIA destroying these tapes, and the Senate committee votes 14 to one to go further. And for those of you [at TIFF] who are American citizens, there’s nothing happening right now that’s going to get a 14 to one vote. This isn’t a long time ago. I spoke with a lot of journalists while I was doing research, and other senators, not just Dan. And we can’t get anything done in our country. That’s what I want people to recognize: At some point people were able to put a problem ahead of party and try to find a solution and do what our country was meant to do. And the cost of not doing that is extraordinary—whether we talk about servicemen who now have to go into the field and could get tortured, or a hundred other things that are going on. I hope that it reminds people that there is some common ground for America that maybe we can build on.”

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