The Two-Hour Story of a Seven-Year Investigation
Film Director Scott Z. Burns brings the C.I.A. torture report to life
The McCain Institute for International Leadership teamed up with Colorado State University’s Journalism & Media Communication student Brooke Buchan for the young generation perspective of the importance of “The Report” and First Amendment rights. With exclusive access, Brooke sat down with three key figures in the making of the story: Daniel J. Jones, the lead U.S. Senate investigator and author of The Torture Report; Scott Z. Burns, director, producer and screenwriter of “The Report” film; and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), a proponent of The Torture Report’s release.
By Brooke Buchan
In a grainy, color-subdued video from 2014, Arizona Senator John McCain appears at a wooden podium on the U.S. Senate floor.
Clad in a black suit and silhouetted by a blue, 90s-looking carpet, he addresses the president of the Senate, lightly claps the podium and begins to speak.
He thanks the C.I.A. for their dedication to protecting the United States, then proclaims why he supports the public release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report on Torture. He urges that the use of torture on detainees in the C.I.A.’s custody after 9/11 “damaged our reputation as a force of good in the world” and “stained our national honor.”
Film Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns found inspiration in Senator McCain’s speech when making his new movie, “The Report.”
“The first scene that I wrote of this movie was the scene with [John McCain’s] speech in it. When I saw that speech I thought, ‘I could write a different speech, but it’s not going to be any better,’” Burns, who is also the director and producer for the film, said.
The film retells the seven years former Senate investigator Daniel Jones spent reviewing the C.I.A.’s destruction of taped interrogations and their questionable detention practices after 9/11. His work resulted in a 6,700-page report.
The question of releasing it garnered the attention of politicians across party lines, and the 500-page summary was released to the public in 2014.
The actual investigation began when a New York Times article revealed the C.I.A.’s destruction of videotaped interrogations of Al-Qaeda detainees in 2005 and led to concerns over obstruction of justice by the C.I.A. for destroying evidence.
The extensive report establishes the C.I.A.’s use of torture on detainees. It proves torture did not work to gather crucial intelligence information. It contradicts claims that were made to policymakers, and reveals a lack of accountability for ethically and legally questionable actions within the organization.
Complete with flashbacks recreating black sites where detainees were held and the real-life clip of Senator McCain’s speech, the film juggles compelling storytelling with showcasing the relentless facts.
“How do you build these individual increments of storytelling that are going to keep people leaning forward,” Burns said. “There is a difference between curiosity and confusion that is really tricky.”
Shot in just 26 days on a low budget in the movie-making world, Burns worked with what was available to create the curiosity-inducing language of the film.
They shifted the tones of the present scenes to cold blues and the flashback scenes to sulfuric yellows to make the different time periods stand out. Burns said his team hunted to capture natural flares of light when filming the flashbacks, intended to make these scenes “look like they were starting in Dan’s mind.”
Jones says his motivations to see the report through to the end came from the powerful content itself and from ensuring the ideals created by the founding fathers are not cast aside. Though he is the protagonist, Jones does not think he is the focus of the film.
“It’s about the report and the process of legislative oversight in a country that is for the people, by the people, of releasing something to the American public,” Jones said.
“We fight for our founding principles, and this idea of American exceptionalism doesn’t mean we can go off and torture people whenever we like. Scott ends the film with a quote from George Washington during the Revolutionary War... instructing his soldiers not to torture anyone because we were building something different.”
The difference alluded to is the ideal that America strives to protect the humanity of every person. At times it falls short, but America is threaded with a foundation that people have undeniable rights that enable life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Many feel the hidden torture of detainees, the misleading information provided to policymakers and the lack of accountability for these events spell the opposite of what the country stands for.
Both Jones and Burns believe the release of the summary could not have happened without the support of prominent political voices, like Republican Senator McCain and Democratic Senator Mark Udall from Colorado.
Senator Udall says his actions were driven by the stark truth of the report, and his hope for America to preserve her legacy as a force that upholds human rights.
“In the end, it was clear to me that the program was illegal; it was immoral; it was unconstitutional. My ultimate mission… is to ensure we never again are tempted to use torture,” he said.
“The military is not the biggest weapon that America has to keep itself safe and to keep the world safe… [it] is our Bill of Rights, and how it protects our freedoms.”
Burns, when ruminating on the personal implication Senator McCain’s speech had on him, discusses how powerful it was to see him lie down party lines and embrace the pragmatic truth of the report.
“The thing that really was emotional for me was you sensed from him his belief in what America was supposed to be, and I think that’s what I grew up believing as well,” said Burns.
In his speech, Senator McCain does not justify, but acknowledges the reasons that would have influenced personnel in the C.I.A. to use techniques of torture under intense pressure to protect American lives.
Senator McCain was a victim of torture during the Vietnam war, sustaining lasting physical damages.
He goes on to say, “I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear, were neither in the best interest of justice, nor our security, nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend.”
The cultural impact Burns seeks with the film is not partisan-motivated, but it is to encourage society to seek truth.
“What I hope the movie does is allow people across the political spectrum to go and see this thing that happened and decide if it was right or wrong. Not right or left,” he said.
The executive summary of the Senate torture report can be found here. The full report remains classified. Opponents claim releasing it could pose national security risks. Proponents say releasing it supports government transparency and accountability.
Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Senator McCain proposed an anti-torture amendment in 2015 restricting interrogation techniques to those authorized by the Army Field Manual. Torture under international law and U.S. law is illegal and was illegal at the time these events occurred, yet prosecution and accountability have been messy.
Ideals of dignity and truth are represented in this story and in our First Amendment rights. These rights provide subtleties to life we overlook every day. They allow you to click on the links above. They allow you to freely scroll your Twitter feed and search limitlessly on Google for the answers to your homework.
But they also allow you to criticize the government without fear of repercussion. They allow you to ask for what is right and to speak out about what is not. To organize and protest. To investigate, publish and read about the truth that goes on in our country and the world. They put immense power into your hands, power and freedoms that are still being fought for around the world today.
Exercise your First Amendment rights to hear, see and participate in your freedom of the press and your freedom of speech and go see “The Report” in theaters or stream it now on Amazon Prime.
As Senator McCain said, “I believe the American people have a right, indeed a responsibility, to know what was done in their name.”
Watch “The Report” and decide for yourself.
This movie should be required viewing for ALL members of Congress, and for the leaders of the intelligence community. It shines a light on what this nation did, and on the efforts of the government to obstruct and delay the writing of the report on the use of torture. I'd love to see this movie added to High School history and civics course resources as well.