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To depict CIA’s torture program in ‘The Report,’ Scott Z. Burns went to the man who exposed it

Writer-director Scott Z. Burns, left, has a new movie "The Report," based on real-life Senate staffer Daniel Jones, right.
Writer-director Scott Z. Burns, left, has a new movie "The Report," based on real-life Senate staffer Daniel Jones, right.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

For seven long years, Senate staffer Daniel Jones investigated the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation programs. After compiling his findings into a 6,700-page document that detailed lies, lack of oversight, and systematic abuses of power and human rights at the agency, Jones eventually saw 500 heavily redacted pages become public in 2014. It was referred to as The Torture Report.

That was the original title of “The Report,” now in theaters, which charts Jones’ protracted pursuit of the truth about the CIA’s so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques, such as waterboarding. The drama, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, goes so far as to cross out the word “torture” on its title card, mimicking a government official’s over-eager Sharpie marker.


To accurately condense Jones’ years-long journey through governmental corruption and cover-up into a tight, two-hour narrative, Burns chose his words carefully – even the redacted ones.

“As a writer, I believe the thing that immediately precedes any institutional assault on human decency is an assault on language,” said Burns, speaking alongside Jones (who’s played by Adam Driver in the film) during a recent interview in Boston.

“That’s the only way the institution can in fact proceed down that path," added the writer-director. “They need to come up with language that makes that [assault] feel like other than what it really is.”

One example was the phrase “enhanced interrogation” itself, which covered the CIA’s use of insects, sleep deprivation, rectal feeding, and mock burials in coffin-shaped boxes. “If that’s not torture," said Burns, "I don’t know why we even have the word.”

“The Report” shines a harsh light on how the CIA abused detainees after 9/11, but it’s equally damning of the relentlessly circular logic employed by officials to justify such maltreatment, despite its illegal nature and even after it failed to produce results. At one point in the film, a CIA agent (played by Maura Tierney) tells the psychologists in charge of ‘enhanced interrogations’ to continue their program. “You have to make this work,” she insists, matter-of-factly. “It’s only legal if it works.” In another scene, the psychologists defend their methods, saying that “waterboarding got us the truth, and the truth is that he’s lying.”


Self-professed policy wonks, Burns and Jones said they remain struck by the near-solipsistic nature of such reasoning, used in multiple CIA reports. It reminded Burns of “Catch-22,” Joseph Heller’s acerbic satire of military bureaucracy.

“It’s like, ‘If you don’t want to go on a mission, because you’re afraid you’ll get killed, you’re obviously sane, so you can’t say you’re too crazy to go on the mission,’” said Burns. “What I find strikingly similar is the CIA saying, ‘If this saves lives, it’s legal, so you have to say it saves lives, otherwise it’s not legal.’ I laid a lot into the script about that.”

Heller’s novel and “Doctor Strangelove” were two early inspirations for Burns, best known as the writer behind tensely knotted Steven Soderbergh thrillers “The Informant!" and “Contagion." Burns first read about the CIA’s use of torture in a 2007 Vanity Fair article on John Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, the Air Force psychologists who brought “enhanced interrogations” to the CIA. Neither had any prior experience conducting interrogations, which confounded Burns.

He contacted the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein, who ordered Jones’ investigation (and is played by Annette Bening in the film). After they were connected by phone, Jones and Burns met for a drink in New York, striking up a friendship as the writer peppered Jones with questions.


Said Jones: “We basically nerded out on the material. For someone who spent seven years doing this stuff on their own, or with a small team, to speak to someone in the public who was actually interested in what I did, it was a treat.”

What Jones could disclose led Burns to change the direction of his story. Once a dark satire of Jessen and Mitchell’s misdeeds, it became a more granular, straightforward thriller, about one civil servant’s “Kafka-esque odyssey” to hold the CIA accountable, said Burns. He studied the films of Sidney Lumet, as well as “The Parallax View" and “All the President’s Men,” two paranoid thrillers by director Alan J. Pakula.

But unlike “All the President’s Men," “The Report” doesn’t center on a whistleblower. That Jones successfully pushed his report through official channels, despite facing obstacles, is part of the film’s larger point about how governmental systems can work, if populated by people who have integrity and are held responsible.

“There’s this cynical political calculus that exists in the world, and the goal of it appears to be self-preservation, not problem-solving," explained Burns. "When one looks at the political dilemmas we now find ourselves in, it’s because of that. If you don’t solve the problem, it continues, and you lose your credibility. People no longer believe government can function. What I find striking about what Daniel did was that because the rigor with which he did this study, because of the discipline and the depth of the research, they had no choice but to do their jobs. There was no calculus.”


“The Report” is still clear-eyed about what Burns calls “a crisis of accountability” in Washington. Tierney’s character is a composite of multiple government employees but most resembles CIA director Gina Haspel, who in 2002 ran a black site in Thailand where prisoners were tortured.

“When [those in government] engage in wrongdoing, there’s this reticence to hold accountable,” said Jones. Even before his report was released, a federal investigation was launched into the CIA’s destruction of videotapes that showed two terror suspects being tortured at a black site. At the investigation’s core were two people: Jose Rodriguez, the CIA’s then-chief of undercover operations, and Haspel, his chief of staff, both of whom were directly involved in destroying the tapes.

“They were not held accountable,” said Jones. “They just moved up the chain.”

The CIA’s program was instituted under the Bush administration, but Burns points out how Barack Obama reckoned with it during his presidency, after Jones’ report was made public. “He said, ‘We tortured some folks,’ but after that, he called the people responsible ‘patriots,’" said Burns, recalling that Obama asked Americans not to "feel too sanctimonious” in their judgment. “That blows my mind,” said Burns. “When do we become [sanctimonious?] Over what?”


Politicians "have this view you must appreciate the gray areas to understand governance,” added Burns. “I don’t subscribe to that. You also need to retain an understanding of what the ideal was. The ideal was that we don’t [torture.] When hiring people to do interrogations, one should hire the best people, not people who’ve never done it before.

"One should do it in accordance with the law, because the victory you’re pursuing is the victory of a set of ideals, that gave rise to this society over those who would destroy it. If you’ve already destroyed those ideals in the course of that battle, what are you ever going to win?”

Isaac Feldberg can be reached at isaac.feldberg@globe.com, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.