Aside from being a taut barnburner, Scott Z. Burns’ The Report is an interesting mix of influences. Burns, a long-time Steven Soderbergh collaborator, originally envisioned the film as a black comedy, centered on two zany psychologists who sold the CIA on their hare-brained plan for using torture — “enhanced interrogation techniques” — to extract information from terror suspects.
These two somehow convinced the CIA that they had the “special sauce,” but there was one problem, aside from the basic immorality of shoving tubes up people’s asses and locking them in coffins until they went mad: none of it actually worked. Contrary to what we saw in Zero Dark Thirty, old school rapport-building leads to far more intelligence than sadism. The two charlatans, who were paid $80 million by the CIA, certainly seem like a solid foundation for a screwy comedy, the Burn After Reading of torture, say, or like another movie Burns wrote, The Informant!. Yet, The Report, Burns’ directorial debut, is not that movie.
The elements of its screwball origins still exist, and are some of its most compelling parts. In the end though, Burns decided on something much more old fashioned. The Report is as much like The Insider or All The President’s Men as it is Catch 22. It has Adam Driver playing the bland functionary turned hero, Daniel Jones, a researcher for the Senate who dutifully worked on the report for five years, weathering personal attacks and stonewalling all the way, and eventually producing a 6,700-page report with 38,000 footnotes for the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Driver turns out to be particularly effective at playing the heroic everyman. It helps that as understated as The Report is, as much as it steadfastly refuses to sensationalize, it doesn’t pull punches. It’s clear in its critiques of 24 and Zero Dark Thirty, for helping to mainstream false CIA narratives about the value of torture, and of both the Bush and Obama administrations, for pushing for and sanctioning torture in the case of the former and for failing to hold those torturers accountable in the case of the latter. It includes a largely generous, but nuanced portrayal of Dianne Feinstein, who (along with the even more generously depicted John McCain) helped shepherd Jones’ work to completion (if not always for entirely altruistic reasons).
The Report opens in theaters November 15th and hits Amazon Prime the following week. I think it’s one of the best of the year. I spoke to Burns about it this week by phone.
So did you actually have to read the entire report?
Well, the classified version is 6,700 pages. And, of course, I couldn’t read that because I don’t have a security clearance. But I did read the executive summary, which was the redacted version that was released to the public. And that’s only about 500 pages.
What were your influences for the movie when you were first putting it together?
Well, initially I had a notion that there might be an interesting sort of Dr. Strangelove dark comedy to be found here involving the two psychologists who sold this program to this CIA. But as I became more familiar with the findings in the executive summary and my research led me to Daniel Jones, I decided that it was a more interesting, compelling movie to tell the story of this guy trying to get the truth out.
It seems like this torture story was in the news cycle for a while and now it’s sort of on the back-burner. Why do you think this was important to remember?
One is that the president that we currently have said on the campaign trail that he would bring back waterboarding “and much worse.” So I think it’s important that people remember what this program really consisted of, not to mention the fact that it was just massively ineffective. So that’s one reason. The second reason is that the story is more than just the torture program. The story is really about the United States government and the question of, do we hold people accountable for what they do? And if you turn on your TV today, I think you’ll see the next chapter in that story being written.
Your film pushes back on previous narratives about torture, like in Zero Dark Thirty. Why did you think it was important to change the perception there?
Well, the narrative that you’re referring to is really the CIA’s narrative. I mean, they were selling that story to the Obama White House, they were putting it in the press. And for me, what was significant about it was, when I was interviewing Daniel Jones about his experience, he talked to me about what it was like to be working away in his basement office at a CIA off-site, knowing that the CIA had the information about Bin Laden from other sources, and not from the EIT program.
So to me what was significant about that moment in the film was, here’s a guy who is being incredibly rigorous about getting out the truth and he just sees this narrative that has been manufactured by the CIA blow by him out into the culture. That moment was an example of how the culture can get ahead of history and then it’s really hard to get the toothpaste back in the tube.
Can you explain, maybe just from a filmmaking and access standpoint, how those CIA-created narratives can end up getting out into pop culture?
Here’s a really basic example. Most of the CIA personnel depicted in the film — John Rizzo, George Tenet, Jim Mitchell — these are all people who have written books. Jose Rodriguez, they’ve all written books that support this program. So you can go into a bookstore and find this narrative written out by public servants of this country. And it’s just not consistent with the findings of Daniel and the Senate. These guys also are on every major network as talking heads. And one of the things that I think is very striking is that, if you go back and look at the print media the day the report came out, every major periodical on earth basically acknowledged that the United States had conducted an ethically abhorrent and massively ineffective program in terms of intelligence gathering. But by the next day you turned on the TV and all you saw were these talking heads continuing to espouse this narrative that just isn’t supported by the facts. That is a real example of how the truth gets lost.
In the Trump era there’s this mass nostalgia for the Obama era. Do you think that that blinds us to some of the ways that they screwed up, especially in this story?
I mean, look, the mandate that I imposed on myself when I wrote this was very similar to the mandate that Dan had when he had to go and do his work, which is, “We’re not interested in right and left, we’re interested in right and wrong.” And so there are mistakes that the Obama administration made here and they’re depicted in the film. I think it’s also important to remember that the Bush administration allowed this program to exist and to flourish, and that that was something that obviously Dick Cheney has supported and he continues to back, even though the Senate’s document clearly shows it to be a deeply flawed program that didn’t work. And so, yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of people to be angry with about this program. It starts with the CIA, I think, at the top of the list. But there’s a kind of political calculation that certainly was practiced by the Obama administration. They wanted, as they said, to turn the page, and if you turn the page you never hold anyone accountable. And I think the crisis of accountability that we have right now… you can see the building blocks of this in American history over the last 20, 30 years.
Normally, when you make a movie about the CIA, it’s part of the difficulty that the only people that have access to a lot of this information are also people that would have the most to lose in telling the truth.
I mean, look, when you work on a movie like The Bourne Ultimatum, there are people who are former CIA officers who do wander around Hollywood offering up consulting. They collect consulting fees to work on films like that. I’ve never known if they were telling the absolute truth or telling you the building blocks for whatever sort of spy movie you were trying to concoct.
Any similarity between those kinds of guys and the guys that sort of peddled that PowerPoint about enhanced interrogation and how it would work?
Not really. The two psychologists — I mean, first of all, they weren’t CIA personnel, they were independent contractors that the CIA hired. And so, they weren’t people from inside the agency. My feeling is that there are a lot of great people at the CIA who do work very hard to keep us safe. And that’s in large part why that Tim Blake Nelson character is in the movie. Just as I don’t think that I can paint Obama as being all bad or all good, I can’t really paint the CIA as being all bad or all good. I think there are individuals inside that organization who do really great work. And then there were people who were involved in this program who probably believed that the CIA was doing important work to keep people safe based on the overtures that those psychologists made. The psychologist did claim to have science backing up this program but no one’s ever been able to show me that science. I don’t know that it exists, Daniel was never able to find it in seven years. So I think that there is an important distinction here between contractors who came in and said, “We have the special sauce and can make this work,” and CIA officers who really do try and keep us safe. I think the people who leave there and consultant in Hollywood, I don’t know, I honestly have never known what to make of that.
Tell me about Adam Driver. Was he your first choice early on?
When I finished the script, I shared it with Steven Soderbergh, who obviously I’ve had a long collaboration with and I asked Steven who he thought would be good for the role. And Adam’s name came up pretty much first. And so he sent it to Adam and Adam and I had dinner, and Adam said what I hoped an actor would say, which is, “I thought I knew this story and reading your script, I was really pulled in because I realized I don’t.” And that kind of curiosity is what that character needs. And the fact that Adam had been in the Marines after 9/11 I think gave him an appreciation for how the military feels about this program, and an innate understanding of how protocol works in these institutions. And then the other more obvious thing is, there’s really nothing that Adam Driver does that isn’t interesting to watch. His face is just so expressive. And I knew I was going to have to have scenes where he has to express frustration without speaking and play it on his face. And he’s extraordinary at that. He’s also extraordinary just looking at a computer screen.
What was the conversation with Amazon about theatrical versus the streaming and how you set your release platform?
Well, the cool thing about what happened with this film was, it was made independently for very little money. We shot it in 26 days. Amazon saw it at Sundance, like everybody else in our industry, and they pursued it really aggressively. They made it very clear from the outset that they respected my desire for a theatrical window and that they understood, I think, that there was value in this film having that kind of platform before it moved on to streaming.
Now, again, I didn’t develop the movie there. And so when Soderbergh and I sat down to talk to them, we did hold a lot of the cards. But that being said, there was never a moment where they pushed back, saying “We don’t really want to do a theatrical window” or anything like that. And my feeling about it, and I think Steven’s as well, is that when you make a film, you want there to be a theatrical experience. I mean, that’s what you’re making it for. I can’t remember who said this, but seeing a movie on a phone or computers is sort of like seeing a picture of a painting rather than going and seeing the painting in the museum.
That being said, because of how the movie theater business has evolved, there are places in the world where this movie would never make it if not for Amazon’s reach with Prime. And so, I’m grateful that there will be an opportunity for people to see this movie the way that I had hoped it would be when we were shooting it. But I’m also glad that there’s an opportunity for people who may not live in communities that can support those businesses to get it on Prime and still hear this story. I just hope they have really good TVs.