NEW YORK (AP) — The unredacted Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s detention and enhanced interrogation program runs approximately 6,700 pages and includes some 38,000 footnotes. It doesn’t exactly scream Hollywood.
But from an early stage, writer-director Scott Z. Burns was drawn to the Congressional quest to detail and bring to light the CIA’s torturing of detainees in the wake of Sept. 11. He zeroed in, ultimately, on Daniel J. Jones, the lead investigator for the Senate Intelligence Committee, who toiled for five years on an investigation that culminated with the 2014 release of a 525-page summary . Its findings discredited the still widely held belief that torture techniques contributed to the capture of Osama bin Laden.
“The Report,” written and directed by Burns and starring Adam Driver as Jones, is the story of that report and Jones’ struggle to release it. At a time when false narratives come by the blizzard, the film is a heavily researched, star-laden, big-screen effort to set the record straight.
“Whatever narrative you want, you can find. They’re all out there on the internet waiting for you. Whatever confirmation bias you walk into a situation with, you’ll find the narrative you dreamed up waiting for you,” says Burns. “I guess I still believe that there are facts. I want very much to live in a world where facts inform storytelling.”
Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, “The Report” has stood out as something more akin to a ’70s thriller — an inner-government “All the President’s Men” that takes the audience inside a legal struggle that some, like the late Sen. John McCain, saw as a battle for the very ideals of American democracy.
“The Report,” which Amazon Studios is releasing in theaters this weekend, is also a kind of cinematic counterpoint to Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.” That film, released two years ahead of the report’s unveiling, suggested a link between information gleaned by torture to the Bin Laden raid. An ad for “Zero Dark Thirty” is seen momentarily in the background of “The Report” while Jones is striving to get his findings released — one more obfuscation standing in his way.
At the time, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and McCain condemned “Zero Dark Thirty” as “grossly inaccurate” and guilty of “perpetuating the myth that torture is effective.” Feinstein wrote to the CIA , suggesting it had intentionally misled the “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmakers.
“Kathryn Bigelow and (screenwriter) Mark Boal, the narrative they have in their film is consistent with the CIA narrative that they provided to the White House, the Department of Justice, the intelligence committee and eventually the public,” says Jones. “It was our report that uncovered that this narrative was, in fact, not accurate and largely fabricated — and fabricated for the purposes of cleansing the use of these enhanced interrogation techniques.”
“The Report” doesn’t have the muscular action of “Zero Dark Thirty.” But it mines the investigators’ hunt for the truth, combing through documents and evidence, for a dense but engrossing political thriller that navigates the ugly history of black site water boarding and its dubious effectiveness. The film, with Annette Bening playing Feinstein and Jon Hamm as Denis McDonough, President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, also captures the wider battles within the government over the Senate’s uncomfortable inquiry.
“The core part of it for Scott and the core reason that I worked with Scott on it is because he really cared about the report,” says Jones, who now runs an investigative consultancy and a nonprofit called Advance Democracy. “How do you tell the story of the report, itself?”
Burns initially planned to use a pair of psychologists as his entry point but, after meeting Jones, settled instead on the Senate staffer. “The Report” is a portrait of obsession, chronicling Jones’ ever-expanding findings which gradually overtake the walls of the team’s subterranean office.
Driver was drawn to the project by Burns’ previous work with Steven Soderbergh, particularly 2009’s “The Informant!” about a whistleblower in the lysine price-fixing conspiracy. (Soderbergh, a producer on “The Report,” also directed Burns’ scripts for “Contagion,” ”Side Effects” and this year’s “The Laundromat.”) As a former Marine, Driver also quickly recognized in Jones someone working for accountability from within a chain of command.
“Institutions like that are hard to live up to. Sometimes they can get in the way of progress. It’s what can be challenging in the military, not acknowledging that certain things are problems,” says Driver. “Sexual assault, for example, is a huge problem within the military. Some branches are more aggressive about combating it, and some choose to not address it at all. I don’t know if that necessarily makes the institutions bad. It requires better leadership. That I really identify with.”
Burns, who’s also a writer on the next James Bond film “No Time to Die,” previously directed the 2006 HBO film “Pu-239,” about radiation poisoning at a Russian nuclear plant. He has made a career of digging deep into the weeds on complex issues and turning them into gripping entertainment. In “The Laundromat,” for example, he crafted a byzantine farce based on Panama Papers investigative reporting .
“It’s the research, to be honest. I really like research,” says Burns, who dabbled in journalism before turning to film and television. “When I was in school, my favorite days were when we got to go on field trips. Screenwriting has provided for a lot of those field trips.”
Burns had been set to direct 2013’s “Side Effects” but struggled to find financing and eventually yielded to Soderbergh. “When I did that, Steven said to me: ‘Write the next one for yourself,'” recalls Burns.
Shortly after entering office, Obama signed an executive order banning “enhanced interrogation” techniques, stating that only noncoercive methods may be used. The events of “The Report” can already feel like a long time ago. Burns cites the 14-1 Senate Intelligence Committee vote to open the CIA investigation as an example of non-partisanship unfathomable just ten years later.
Jones, though, believes the lessons of “The Report,” still apply.
“Facts matter and truth matters. If you just keep pushing and pushing, those things come out,” says Jones. “The tide will turn.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP