There is a painful laugh-out-loud moment near the end of The Report, Scott Z. Burns’s docudrama about the Senate Oversight Committee’s attempts to investigate the CIA’s use of torture in the wake of 9/11. The Senate Democrats are caucusing, and one member opines that if they release a report critical of the CIA under the Bush administration, nothing will keep the Republicans from going after health care or gun control or attempting to use the power of office to cast their political opponents in a bad light.
The scene is a painful reminder of the ways that the political landscape has and has not changed in the nearly twenty years since 9/11. The Report is at its best when it insists that the torture isn’t the real scandal so much as the politicizing of oversight. Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) remarks at one point that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” practiced in the aftermath of 9/11 were used in South and Latin America in the 1970s and in Vietnam before that. (He also remarks that the CIA’s own evaluation of such techniques in both those contexts was that they simply didn’t work.)
Given that slightly longer view of American history, the key question raised within the film is why, if the CIA knew that torture didn’t work, did it keep insisting that it had. The answer the film provides is mostly that of psychological conjecture. Fear that there would be another attack and shame that they had not stopped the first led to an almost willful blindness to the poor results and a willful deafness to those raising cries of dissent.
Also, the film argues that the woeful inadequacy of the Yoo memorandum with its specious reasoning gave only a fig leaf’s cover to the contention that the United States didn’t “torture.” Once the CIA admitted that differences between “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “torture” were simply those of results rather than methodology, the only way it could be found not guilty of the latter was by insisting that the former was a necessary evil that produced results obtainable in no other way…even if the evidence didn’t support that contention.
While the facts of torture have been well covered, what feels new here is the broader vista of the political process struggling to maintain any sense of integrity when the majority of its participants are not committed on any basic level to truth-telling or any particular set of core values. It is insinuated that Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Condoleeza Rice chose to not brief President Bush about elements of the CIA’s interrogation program and that Secretary of State Colin Powell was deliberately kept in the dark about decisions to set up Black Ops on foreign soil.
It will probably not keep the film from being accused of partisanship, but President Obama and his staff does not come off particularly well in the film either. Although nobody appears as Obama, it is implied that he was politically opportunistic and that he did not want to squander political capital gained for killing bin-Laden by contradicting the CIA’s narrative that enhanced interrogation techniques were critical in finding him. Several times it is suggested that his desire to perceived as a post-partisan president made him unwillingly to look too closely at the Bush administration for fear that hard evidence would force him to act. (In this regard, the film actually casts Hillary Clinton in a more favorable light than Barack Obama, albeit in a sound bite that is easily missed.)
The biggest weakness of the film, finally, is that it calls for outrage from a public that may be overdosed on that emotional drug. Or, at the very least, it calls for outrage from an audience increasingly cynical that its outrage makes the smallest difference. In an age in which we attack investigators, metaphorically kill the messengers, and howl “fake news!” before the most carefully documented reports are completed, there is something noble about continuing to tell the stories of those who strive to bring truth to light, regardless of personal cost. If Cheney and Obama come off poorly, Senators Feinstein and McCain are paired (at least at the end) to remind us that no one party has a monopoly on truth-telling.
Then again, perhaps an implicit message is that the very qualities that made McCain and Feinstein good senators — placing principles above party loyalty — are the same qualities that made it impossible for someone like them to get elected president.
Filmfest 919 continues through Sunday, October 13.