A few days after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on 'Meet The Press', and when asked about the magnitude of America's response to the terrorist threat, he said, "We also have to work through, sort of, the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we're going to be successful."
Years after Cheney's veiled statement, the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a 6,700-page report it had compiled about the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program and its use of various forms of torture ("enhanced interrogation techniques") on detainees in CIA custody before, during, and after the "War on Terror". The dark side, if you will.
The report details actions by CIA officials, including torturing prisoners, and providing misleading or false information about classified CIA programs to the President, Department of Justice, Congress, and the media. It also revealed the existence of previously unknown detainees, that more detainees were subjected to torture than was previously disclosed, and that more forms of torture were used without Department of Justice approval. It concluded that torturing prisoners did not yield unique intelligence that saved lives (as the CIA claimed), nor was torture useful in gaining cooperation from detainees, and that the program damaged the United States' international standing.
Upon the report's release, then-President Barack Obama stated, "One of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better."
There's a very famous shot in Alan J. Pakula's 1976 classic 'All The President's Men' of Woodward and Bernstein seated at a table, paging through stacks of pertinent documents, as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the full size and scope of the room. It's the movie in a nutshell: two journalists with their noses to the grindstone, discovering just how far back the conspiracy they're investigating really reaches. Amazon Studios' 'The Report' never conveys its themes with any such formal elegance; it's more workmanlike and similar to Tom McCarthy's 'Spotlight', another based-on-true-story film about a conspiracy to cover up abuse. But it uses the same gripping procedural mode, with a comparable interest in the mundane daily duties - the nuts and bolts, the nitty gritty of research - to cover territory previously explored by Alex Gibney in his Oscar-winning documentary 'Taxi To The Dark Side'.
Written by and the directorial debut of frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns (he wrote the fact-based films 'The Informant!' and 'Contagion'), 'The Report' focuses on the legwork - the unglamorous business of sifting through thousands of preexisting memos, transcripts, and mission debriefs, occasionally interviewing witnesses, and hounding Senators to push for their findings to be entered into the congressional record.
Interspersed with this are flashbacks to show us the events that occurred in the secret government black sites, as CIA-sponsored psychologists John Brennan and John Yoo try to reverse engineer anti-interrogation techniques against suspected terrorists - they explain the benefits of waterboarding and pouring jars of insects on prisoners before burying them alive - and remain convinced that torture is the only way to elicit the information they want. Chillingly, we also get to hear the word "torture" being carefully parsed in legal language to make some interpretations okay to use as "enhanced interrogation".
The film introduces its bullpen of principle players quickly, establishing the trust and confidence California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, 'Captain Marvel', '20th Century Women') puts in Senate investigator Daniel Jones (Adam Driver, 'The Dead Don't Die', 'BlacKkKlansman') as he leads an investigation of the CIA's escalation of President George W. Bush's war on terror into inhumane acts forbidden by international law.
Burns' characters are trying to manoeuvre around historic vows of secrecy, coaxing information out of people who have spent a lifetime repressing or concealing. Unfolding chiefly within mundane interior spaces - the type of cluttered offices and government buildings that the late Sidney Lumet built a career around filming - 'The Report' depicts the U.S. government as a closed community, where insiders uphold and protect the traditions of their institutions.
The film excoriates the propaganda-style Hollywood fiction about the Bush years that glamorise torture as brutal but necessary - we see Jones smirking at 'Zero Dark Thirty' on TV before later ripping into the sheer ridiculousness of Jack Bauer and '24'.
Burns lets the personalities of the workaholics on Jones' team shine through, while still keeping the focus squarely on their professional lives; you can count on one hand the scenes that don't depict them on assignment. The film explicitly depicts how the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the CIA were brutal, immoral, and ineffective forms of torture, and that the CIA routinely misrepresented these facts to policymakers. The film excoriates the propaganda-style Hollywood fiction about the Bush years that glamorise torture as brutal but necessary - we see Jones smirking at 'Zero Dark Thirty' on TV before later ripping into the sheer ridiculousness of Jack Bauer and '24'.
Furthermore, the film gains its sense of urgency not from any personal conflict or overt danger (although Jones is eventually personally threatened with crippling legal action by the CIA), but from questions of government protocol. When the Senate Intelligence Committee attempts to publish their findings, they have to contend with the CIA and White House's attempts to block and undermine the report. Does Jones sit on proof of abuse until the Senate is prepared to acknowledge his findings? Or does he cut through the bullshit and leak classified documents to the press (embodied by a cynical Matthew Rhys as a spiritual relative of his character in Spielberg's 'The Post')?
While the dialogue occasionally veers into pure exposition with a side of Aaron Sorkin-lite word salad, Burns has made a true ensemble drama, with nary a bum note in a sprawling cast that includes Sarah Goldberg, Michael C. Hall, Douglas Hodge, Fajer Kaisi, Ted Levine, Jennifer Morrison, Tim Blake Nelson, Linda Powell, T. Ryder Smith, Corey Stoll, and a very sinister Maura Tierney. This isn't a film that relies on a huge performance, a la 'Kill The Messenger' or 'The Post' - there are no star turns in the movie; it's too focused on creating a tapestry to accommodate any larger-than-life performances.
'The Report' essentially boils down to the idea of truth and morality versus the administrative state, and a country not living up to its ideals. With America more polarised than ever, this film couldn't be more timely.