‘The Report,’ A New Film About The CIA Torture Program, Calls Out ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ For Pushing Propaganda

Sundance Film Festival

The Report, a new film from writer/director Scott Z. Burn, depicting the researcher who worked to name names and expose the gritty details of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City Saturday night. Produced by Steven Soderbergh, the film follows Daniel J. Jones, played by Adam Driver, a researcher for the Senate who spent five years leading a team of investigators writing a report on the CIA’s torture program and later fighting for it to be released to the public.

In the film, Jones uncovers the extent of the CIA program, its approval by top officials in the executive branch and in the CIA, the CIA’s attempts to cover up the grisly details of the program, and their PR campaign to try to get ahead of public opinion and justify the program in the court of public opinion.

The film specifically refutes the notion, allegedly put forth by the CIA, that the torture program ever produced any actionable intelligence. The film describes a coordinated publicity campaign by the CIA to convince the public that the program had contributed intelligence that, among other things, led to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in 2011.

In one scene the film calls out Zero Dark Thirty by name, the 2012 film from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, for helping to push the faulty narrative that a tortured prisoner gave up valuable information leading to Bin Laden’s courier. In another, Driver as Jones ridicules the TV show 24, and the idea that Jack Bauer could learn about terrorist plots by threatening to stab detainees.

Burns, a frequent Soderbergh collaborator who previously wrote Side Effects, Contagion, and The Informant!, among others, brought out Daniel J. Jones along with the cast during the post-screening Q&A, where Jones received a standing ovation from the audience at the Eccles Center Theater. Annette Bening, who plays Senator Dianne Feinstein in the film, joined Jones and Burns and some of the rest of the cast on stage, where she described meeting Feinstein and attending John McCain’s funeral.

Zero Dark Thirty sparked some debate over its depiction of torture when it was released, but also garnered plenty of awards attention, including Academy Award nominations for best picture, best actress for Jessica Chastain, and best original screenplay (it was also nominated for editing and won the Oscar for sound editing). The film opened with a scene in which a CIA interrogator played by Jason Clarke waterboards a detainee and confines him in a tiny box as Jessica Chastain’s lead (both composite characters) looks on. The prisoner doesn’t actually give up the information until a later scene in which he’s being fed and treated more humanely.

In The Report, which is based in part on the 2007 Vanity Fair article “Rorschach And Awe” by Katherine Eban, Driver-as-Jones repudiates the notion that the information came from a prisoner at all.

The Report depicts Jones’ five-year investigation into the torture program and his subsequent crusade to see the report released to the public. It depicts the Obama administration’s tepid and even hostile response to the report, not wanting to alienate the CIA (who some believe helped get him re-elected in 2012) or push too hard on prosecuting Bush officials for their part in war crimes after promising to be a “post-partisan” candidate during the election. It’s surprisingly pointed in its criticisms of the Obama administration, given the usual soft focus depictions of Obama in early festival films like Barry and Southside With You.

The Report, which also stars John Hamm, Maura Tierney, Jennifer Morrison, and Tim Blake Nelson, was produced by Vice Media. It does not yet have a release date.

Sundance Film Festival