The original title of the film was The Torture Report, but the second word was eliminated, perhaps because even after all these years, it’s hard to admit that the U.S. once resorted to such barbaric methods when interrogating prisoners. After 9/11 many Americans were sad, angry, and fearful. Intelligence and government officials found themselves on the defensive. How were so many warning signs missed? And what was being done to prevent another attack?
Prisoners, many of them hidden away in black site ops around the world, were questioned. And when their answers were found lacking, another tactic was tried – torture. Methods included water boarding, sleep deprivation, loud music played without interruption, even placing someone in a coffin-like box with insects. The tactics were supposedly endorsed by experts (although the ones we meet in the film appear to have had dubious qualifications), who believed that prisoners became more truthful when subjected to such treatment. In most cases, the opposite happened. Prisoners talked just to make the pain stop, but what they confessed to was mostly false.
In this true-life drama, Adam Driver plays Daniel J. Jones, a staff member for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2009, Jones was working for California Senator Diane Feinstein (an excellent Annette Bening), who is looking into the CIA’s use of what was termed “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11. The investigation was sparked when the committee learned that the CIA had destroyed tapes of those interrogations. Jones is driven to find out what happened, even if it means going through millions of pages of documents to find the answers.
Jones has a small staff that is holed up in a basement office in CIA headquarters, where they can look at the documents but not take them off the premises. But as the work drags on, even members of Jones’ staff become discouraged and leave for other opportunities in the government. When the mid term elections flip the Senate and Feinstein is no longer in charge of the committee, there’s some doubt the report, if it’s ever completed, will be released.
While it’s a challenge to bring drama to what is essentially a paper chase, Scott Z. Burns, who wrote and directed, manages to produce a tense, tight drama. There are the inevitable meetings with a source in a parking garage and an incident when Jones manages to take advantage of surprisingly lax security at the CIA to leave with evidence.
The torture scenes are more graphic than anything included in Zero Dark Thirty. Particularly unnerving are the reactions from those watching such brutality unfold, particularly two CIA officers played by Maura Tierney and Joanne Tucker. Except for Jones and Feinstein, no one comes off looking good in the film. CIA Director John Brennan (Ted Levine) oversaw a report that came to the same conclusion as Jones’, but to go public would harm the agency’s reputation. Even President Barack Obama refuses to take anyone to task, perhaps his way of thanking those who helped his reelection by killing 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Driver, who seems to be everywhere these days, is the center of the film and delivers a strong performance as the crusading Jones. Bening’s portrayal of Feinstein shows the senator’s public side we all know so well, but it’s the moments behind the scenes when Bening shows Feinstein as she wrestles with the heavy responsibility that has been placed on her shoulders that truly define the senator’s character and make Bening’s performance stand out.
Photo Credit: Atsushi Nishijima