The Report Film – Hollywood Gets the Story Right on CIA Torture | The Center for Victims of Torture

The Report Film – Hollywood Gets the Story Right on CIA Torture

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Stanton Wood is CVT strategic initiatives officer.

In 2016 I wrote an article for the CVT blog about the portrayal of torture in popular media, and how writers have so often gotten it wrong, despite mountains of evidence. I talked about how torture can’t prove innocence, how it’s ineffective, how it never leads to actionable intelligence because it’s about vengeance and not intelligence gathering. I wrote about how it’s illegal (and was then) even though we called it “enhanced interrogation techniques” and stuff. Calamari, after all, is still squid. I discussed how it’s counterproductive and antithetical to American values, and how it diminishes both perpetrator and victim. I even mentioned that the “ticking time bomb scenario” is stupid and something that never happens; I quoted George Washington’s deliberate order to not torture British troops and then threw in a Star Wars reference; and I also talked about how the only effective interrogation technique is building rapport.

All of which was dramatized pretty effectively in the new film The Report. Even the George Washington quote. The only thing that was missing was the Star Wars reference. The film follows the career of Dan Jones as it relates to The Torture Report – his and his team’s efforts to study the CIA’s interrogation program, write the report of his findings, and press Senate Intelligence Committee leadership – Senator Dianne Feinstein in particular – to release it to the public. In telling the story of Jones, the film indicts torture as a perennially ineffective interrogation technique that human beings (and the CIA) return to again and again out of desperation, vengeance, and an instinctive belief that it somehow must work despite the evidence. It highlights both its brutality and its ineffectiveness.

One of the most striking things is how the film does this with a certain amount of sympathy for the perpetrators. It shows the CIA officers being kicked out of their super-secure secret counter terrorism center because it’s been identified as a potential target on 9/11. We see CIA senior officers on 9/11 watching the news and groping for examples of how they’re not to blame for being so blindsided by the attack – a sad attempt to pump each other up. The palpable sense of an entire agency experiencing their own version of PTSD as they pursue a desperate quest for redemption seems to permeate the film and drive every bad agency decision. An objection to the black site program on the grounds that the CIA is not in the business of detention leads to “we’re in the business of whatever gets the job done.” Questions about the scientific basis of the theories underpinning the torture program are dismissed with “we need to put on our big boy pants.” In one of the most resonant scenes, the CIA responds to an FBI breakthrough not with inter-agency cooperation or congratulations but by demanding to be in the room and run all future interrogations. The more effective FBI interrogators are sidelined and the torture program begins. It’s not enough that intelligence is gathered or the public protected; the intelligence and the protection must come from, and be seen to come from, the CIA. And once the CIA takes over, they become increasingly desperate; the program is only legal if it works, and it’s not working, which just brings more reminders of past failures. Fear, anger, defensiveness and shame provide the subtext to every scene.

The psychologists in the charge of the program come off the worst here, as perhaps they should. Their dissertations are mocked, their reasoning portrayed as increasingly empty and self-fulfilling, their pitch is made with a power point and is purely theoretical. Various characters highlight their lack of qualifications. They end toasting each other on the private jet they bought with government money. More subtle is the indictment of the American Psychological Association (APA). An early witness notes that the American Medical Association had forbidden doctors from participating because their oath was to first do no harm, though some doctors did participate nonetheless. The APA, of course, took no such stand, and in fact facilitated the torture by adjusting ethical guidelines to allow psychologists to participate and oversee the torture. The APA was alone among professional organizations in approving and encouraging participation in overseeing torture. One of my few criticisms of the film is that they didn’t make this more explicit. Thankfully, the APA has since reversed course and strengthened its ethical guidelines accordingly.

Of course once the Report is completed, the CIA shifts into cover up mode and all sympathy for them vanishes. Without the tragic failures of 9/11 driving their decisions, the CIA, and particularly its new leadership, come off as a criminal enterprise intent on cover up, a cover up facilitated by the executive branch. In fact, one of the more revealing threads of the film is how the Torture Report happens despite the Obama administration rather than because of it, and how the Administration repeatedly uses politics to facilitate CIA attempts to bury it. Hindsight adds to the irony; in the age of Trump, it’s hard to see Obama making compromises in a quest for post-partisanship as anything other than naïve and misguided. And that’s not the only place where the film is mindful of our perspective looking back. One aspect of that cover up is the creation of a CIA narrative, and the creation of that narrative can’t help but make us think of 3 years of disinformation campaigns, fake news, propaganda, and lies repeated over and over again in an attempt to make them feel like truth. The Agency wanted PR people to connect enhanced interrogation with finding Bin Laden. The film Zero Dark Thirty, made with the cooperation and participation of the CIA, becomes an example of the “CIA narrative”, and CIA PR officials design a campaign where officials go on talk show circuits to talk about how enhanced interrogation led to actionable intelligence.

In many ways, it is this conflict that is at the heart of the film. The Report is very much about narrative and how story represents truth, because it is through narrative that we define both reality and identity. Will it be the story based on fact, or will it be the story based on lies? Will we be the nation that creates the report, or the nation that releases it? Characters repeatedly talk about the CIA effectively getting their narrative out there before Jones can. When the CIA redacts the Report, Jones complains that the story is lost – you can’t tell who did what. In scene after scene, Jones faces off against the CIA and effectively argues about how the story will be told. Who’s going to write this story, the CIA or the Senate Intelligence Committee? What’s it going to be based on, thousands of documents, or public relations?

The Report can be read as a bookend to Zero Dark Thirty, or a rebuttal. It can also be read as a political or journalist thriller, like All the President’s Men or Spotlight, stories about dedicated people trying to gather enough evidence to publish a story and reveal hidden truth. But it can also be viewed in therapeutic terms. CVT clinicians, for instance, are trained in the use of Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET). NET involves clients narrating past traumatic experiences, and experiencing those emotions, while staying connected to the present. The client effectively writes their biography, contextualizes trauma in the context of an entire life, and finds meaning in their experience. Torture, or a torture experience, becomes one experience in a lifetime of experiences – defining, perhaps, but not debilitating. The Report, by finding the narrative thread in its source material and the life of Dan Jones, creates truth for us all to latch onto from the chaos of the first decade of the 21st century, to help us contextualize America’s torture era as one era among many, some good and some bad. It also, hopefully, can help bolster the case for this never happening again.



We heal victims of torture through unique services and professional care worldwide.

Read More


We strengthen partners who heal torture survivors and work to prevent torture.

Read More


We advocate for the protection & care of torture survivors and an end to torture.

Read More