CIA torture in the post-9/11 era with riveting thriller 'The Report'

15 Nov 2019 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

8 mins
The Report
The Report

In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the CIA set up a new Detention and Interrogation program in which suspects were subject to torture methods in order to gain information and intelligence. In this gripping drama, the true story of government staffer Daniel J. Jones' report into these practices and the battles he faced from the authorities in attempting to suppress his findings, is told.

When Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) learns of an article in the New York Times which describes how the CIA had destroyed tapes of Al-Qaeda detainees, she tasks an idealistic up-and-coming staffer with leading an investigation into the potentially dubious and controversial interrogation practices. Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) learns of an extraordinary program - costing in excess of $80million and led by two psychologists who had no real-world interrogation or intelligence experience - in which suspects were tortured through a variety of inhumane techniques, and yet which provided zero results.

He begins to compile a report as part of his investigation into these practices, but multiple factors conspire to provide convenient barriers to his telling of this remarkable story. This includes instances of obstruction from the CIA - not sharing relevant data, making it difficult to access or retain information, and Jones even believes that at one point the CIA may have hacked his work - but he also has internal difficulties to get past. As the following clip demonstrates, he becomes so single-minded in his quest to get the report completed and released that even his own boss, Senator Feinstein, begins to question his loyalty.

While most of the narrative follows Jones' quest to compile evidence and release his report, there are also flashback scenes in the first half of the film which invite audiences to witness some of the instances of horrific torture conducted, rather than merely hearing about them. Although these scenes are intense, and propel the film to a ‘15' certificate (the BBFC guidance states that: "there are verbal references to torture, as well as flashbacks to prisoners being subjected to sleep deprivation with music played at high volume, physical assaults, stress positions, waterboarding and forced enemas), they are necessary to help bring home the reality of the situation, and while these moments are severe and may be uncomfortable for some viewers, the extremity is brief. 

One of the interesting questions the film poses is that around the ethics of torture, and whether it could ever be a justifiable interrogation technique. But in this case, and as mentioned in the trailer below, Jones comes to understand that the torture being used simply did not work; the information gathered as a result was either a lie, or something already known: no new information was gathered as a result of torture.

Another issue which the film presents for debate with more nuance is the idea of whistleblowing. At one point, Daniel Jones becomes so worried about the prospect of his report being stifled by authorities that he considers leaking it to a trusted source, believing that the public have a right to know. He's warned not to, and wrestles over whether it's the morally right thing to do, but even when this element is resolved in the narrative and Jones makes a decision, it is not presented in a way to suggest that what he decides is necessarily the opinion of the filmmaker - it's simply what happened in the real story. It's open to interpretation from audiences, therefore, as to whether whistleblowing could be an ethical solution in this or other scenarios. 

Official Secrets - which is currently in UK cinemas and is also playing at the Into Film Festival - addresses this very issue head-on, in a British story in which sensitive documents related to the Iraq War are illegally released by an MI5 worker. Previously, we've also seen real-life leaks covered in documentaries like We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and Citizenfour.

The film reminds us, in its final act, that politics is not easy or clean, but rather is tricky, full of compromise and necessary pragmatism. This was a period of history in which the world was in chaos; full of fear, doubt, paranoia and distrust in the wake of 9/11. 

Michael Moore, famed political filmmaker who released a documentary on that very issue in Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004, recently introduced a screening of The Report, calling it "powerful, profound, brave filmmaking". 

In the current climate, and in the time since the events of The Report took place, movements such as 'Time's Up' and activists including Greta Thunberg have continued to challenge authority and hold power to account, just as Daniel J. Jones does in The Report, and as others have done before him in both real life and stories on screen. Many of these can be found in our People and Democracy film list below, such as All the President's Menwhich served as a major inspiration for The Report and its filmmakers. In recent years we've seen yet more films reflecting the state of the world, from 2017's The Post to upcoming awards contenders such as Bombshell and Dark Waters.

People like Daniel J. Jones and the films they inspire not only continue to reflect the world, educate audiences and inspire future generations, but also showcase challenging issues and stimulate provocative debates to be had over the complex ethics involved.

The Report is released in UK cinemas on 15 November 2019 and is available on Amazon Prime Video on 29 November.

Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator (Learning)

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

You may also be interested in...

Viewing 4 of 4 related items.

Into Film Clubs

Into Film Clubs

Find out everything you need to know about starting an Into Film Club

News details

Want to write for us?

Get in touch with your article ideas for the News and Views section.