Film Review: ‘The Report’: Apparently Waterboarding Doesn’t Work

Updated: 2019-11-21 10:30:14

R | | Drama, Thriller | 15 November 2019 (USA)

Remember Donald Rumsfeld and all the waterboarding that went on when the United States was after Bin Laden? “The Report” is about that CIA/Rumsfeld/Cheney-sanctioned torture, which produced no results and was then covered up. Top-notch movie. Right up there with “Spotlight,” my top pick of 2015 that focuses on another mega-scandal.

Torture doesn’t work? Really? I’ve read a bunch of special-operations military thrillers, where bad guys get tortured, and the authors suggest it does work. And these are books written by actual former Navy SEALs, Delta Force, and even CIA black-ops operators: men who know war. The James Bond books are full of torture; Bond, of course, is superhumanly stoic and never talks. So I’m confused. More on this later.

Tough Assignment

Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) is a young staffer assigned by boss Senator Dianne Feinstein (an outstanding Annette Bening) to lead an investigation into the CIA’s EIT program (Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) that was designed and implemented post-9/11.

“The Report” is about Jones’s journey of exposing a conspiracy by top government officials to manipulate the law, destroy evidence, and hide from and deny to the American public the truth of the CIA’s brutality.

man in suit at desk
Adam Driver in “The Report.” (Amazon Studios)

It’s not information that many in the government, naturally, would care to have come to light. As one character tells Jones, “They asked you to build a boat, but they had no intention of sailing it.” From waterboarding to sleep deprivation, confined spaces, stress positions, deafening nonstop death-metal music, and so on, “The Report” depicts the PTSD-inducing trauma, injury, and ultimately, the death of prisoners that the United States was responsible for.

Given that we were looking for answers regarding our 2,977 people murdered on 9/11, probably even the most pacifistic of Americans, subconsciously, deep in their souls, sanctioned at least a little bit of torture. As in (to quote Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup from “A Few Good Men”) “… deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties; you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall!”

Probably most of us were feeling a little bit of —whatever it takes. I wonder if TV’s “24,” which was wildly popular and aired during that time period, with Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer running around torturing people and getting tortured, had any relation to all of the above.

poster of man in suit
A poster for “The Report.” (Amazon Studios)

What We Weren’t Aware Of

What we hadn’t counted on was for the whole “enhanced interrogation” to have been hatched by a couple of zealous, CIA-appointed pseudoscientists. It’s slightly unfortunate that in “The Report,” these fools are depicted as exactly that: a couple of bozos, who, had they actually acted and talked like that, would have immediately gotten the whole scheme called into question, under intense scrutiny.

Word would have spread. Because, one more step and they’re in Rex Kwon Do from “Napoleon Dynamite” or John Ratzenberger-as-Cliff on “Cheers” territory: “What you got here is yer enhanced interrogation tactics, guaranteed to elicit full disclosure of the whereabouts of yer Osama Bin Laden” (not an actual quote).

It’s mildly funny, but the self-aggrandizing bamboozlement by these two led to people getting killed for nothing. There was no science happening, just made-up results rejiggered to fit the narratives they wished to promote. These “facts,” along with Weapons of Mass Destruction, make a good argument for this being the starting gun for America’s entry into the post-truth era. Needless to say, the whole thing makes the CIA come off rather badly.

Man behind podium, portrait of George Washington
Jon Hamm in “The Report.” (Amazon Studios)

What Goes On

The deeper Jones dives, the more his outrage mounts, to the point where he is doing nothing but eating, sleeping, and breathing the hunt for truth in an underlit, airless, basement workspace. What’s keeping him up nights is locating the black sites where torture took place. And the whitewashing, misleading, and spinning that had the American public going, “Yup—apparently waterboarding is highly uncomfortable, but they’re getting results; they’re gonna find Bin Laden!” (Not an actual quote from anybody.)

Jones investigates the tortures of a long line of prisoners, chewing and munching his way methodically though a giant salad of sheer paper tonnage of CIA communications meant to wear him out, which became his 1,000-page “Torture Report.” They thought he couldn’t stomach it all. But he did.

Wore his help out too; they begged him to stop. They’d had enough of the basement and the endless redacted paper-grazing.

The best part of the film is the CIA’s eventual burgling of the office, which leads to someone saying a line to the effect of, “The CIA is not allowed to spy on the oversight committee that’s supposed to be in place to stop the CIA from spying on it!!”

Performance-wise, Driver and especially Bening will get Oscar mentions. Bening for channeling Dianne Feinstein’s solemn righteousness, carefulness of speech, and her balancing of the explosive exposure of war crimes that could foment a massive political roiling.

woman with short hair, glasses, and scarf
Annette Bening as Senator Dianne Feinstein in “The Report.” (Amazon Studios)

Speaking of which, the democratic system envisioned by the founding fathers wasn’t what got the info that Jones unearthed to the attention of the American public. It was his righteous whistleblowing. And this is ultimately a nonpartisan issue; it’s about transparency. It’s about America returning to its early, pristine morality. What would founding father George say? He’d say this:

“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner] … I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause … for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace, and ruin to themselves and their country.”  —George Washington, charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force, Sept. 14, 1775

In the past, war was different; war had a different set of ethics. It’s probably too late to return to such quaint views. But humanity should try.

Still … all those war-hero authors writing about the effectiveness of torture? If all that torture proved ineffective, maybe Ian Fleming was trying to sell more books?

Because according to Patrick Cockburn’s excellent article “CIA torture report: It didn’t work then, it doesnt’ work now“: “Torture always produces tainted information because it comes from somebody trying to avoid unbearable suffering. The interrogator is happy that he or she has uncovered conspiracies and plots, and happier still when these are confirmed in elaborate detail by other torture victims. Having unmasked these demonic intentions, which would not have been revealed by other means, interrogators come to discard all information not provided under extreme duress.

This distorted way of thinking became prevalent in the CIA.”
The cast of "The Report" at an event
(L–R) The former United States Senate investigator Dan Jones, actors Jon Hamm and Jennifer Fox, director Scott Z. Burns, and actors Annette Bening and Adam Driver, at an event for “The Report.” (Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDB)

‘The Report’
Director: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Victor Slezak
Rating: R
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 15
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5

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