In The Report, Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a real-life Senate staffer who spent years working in a basement office on a 7,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee report concluding that the CIA’s post-9/11 use of torture in interrogations was not only inhumane but entirely ineffective — only to discover powerful forces determined to suppress his work. Scott Z. Burns, making his directorial debut after a long screenwriting career (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant), turns the true story into a lean political thriller about this dark corner in recent American history, with strong performances from Driver and from Annette Bening as Senator Dianne Feinstein, among others. Burns told Rolling Stone about his path to the film (available to stream starting November 29th on Amazon Prime) and more.
No one throws fits more impressively than Adam Driver, but in this movie he’s incredibly effective while being extremely restrained. How did that work for you?
Exactly what you just said — Senate staffers aren’t allowed to punch walls or pound on tables to make their point. So what he and I spoke about, and I think the challenge in his performance was: How to do you convey a growing sense of frustration and rage and stay appropriate to the decorum of the U.S. Senate and your job as a staffer? A good actor can inhabit that station in life and go, “What are the tools with which I can express the extent of my toil and the way that I’m being blocked at every turn?” That’s where the smallest expression on a face or where you choose to put a breath really makes a difference.
How did Adam end up in the part?
The idea to go to him came from Steven Soderbergh, who worked with him on Logan Lucky and had said that there was absolutely nothing that guy does that ever gets close to boring. You watch Adam do anything, and his face and his eyes are just so alive. And he has a rare gift that some other people from Juilliard also share — someone like Oscar Isaac, for example — [in which] they’re just as good at listening as they are at speaking in a scene. I really needed that, because there’s so much speaking in our movie and I needed him to be a very active listener. When we first met I had some awareness that he had been in the Marines. He said, I feel like I should know this story because it was happening during my time in the military, and the fact that I read like your script and felt like I didn’t know any of this is really intriguing to me. He wanted to help tell that story.
What was your first spark of interest in this story?
When I learned from a story in Vanity Fair about the two psychologists who had somehow persuaded the CIA to pay them 80 million dollars for a program that claimed it could get people to tell the truth. I wanted to see the science that they claimed supported this. And that’s kind of where it started for me. At one point I thought maybe this could be a really dark, Catch-22 comedy, but as it I dug into it more deeply it wasn’t very funny.
What I hope we do is show three things. One that these techniques don’t work. Two, it’s not who our country claims to be, it’s not who I thought we were and it’s not who I want us to be. And three, that the process by which this report came out was really difficult and brutal. I think the audience can interpret it either way. Either the system worked because we got 500 pages out or the system is flawed because there’s 6,300 pages that remain classified.
Is it fair to say you were consciously trying to counter the mythology from a show like 24 or, more specifically, Zero Dark Thirty, which your film takes a shot at?
Exactly. I think that’s what was great about the detail of Dan’s work. The CIA and books written by some of the people involved seem to continue to double down on the claim that these techniques produced unique intelligence that saved lives. I haven’t seen the documents, but what Dan has put together in that report suggests that the CIA itself concluded that these techniques don’t work and that they didn’t do what Congress and the American people were led to believe. The big mystery to me is this document that at some point showed up on the committee’s server called the Panetta Review where the CIA did their own investigation into the program that paralleled the work that Dan and his group were doing, and the conclusions are exactly the same. To me, when people say it’s your word against the CIA, or Dan’s word against the CIA, it’s really not. The CIA reached the same conclusions, and the outrage is, why don’t they declassify the Panetta Review? Then we’ll know. So when people say it’s Dan’s words against the CIA, that’s not really accurate.
There are some negative depictions of Obama and his administration in the movie. Did that feel like violating a pop-cultural taboo of some kind?
I voted for Barack Obama twice and I’m glad I was able to do that. I think he was a remarkable leader. But that doesn’t mean he was perfect. And the fact that nobody was held accountable for all of this and that his decision was, in his own words, to turn the page speaks to a lack of accountability in government that we are still suffering from to this day. I don’t know if it is or isn’t a taboo amongst some people. The fact that we are not able to have our leaders on either side of the aisle be both good and bad, to make mistakes and do great things is part of the problem that we face as a country. Then we’re dealing idolatry and not democracy, and that can’t be the right thing.
But one of my favorite parts of the story is that the [anti-torture] law that is finally passed is through a McCain-Feinstein bill or amendment. And so there was a moment in time, not so long ago, when people were able to reach across the aisle and say this isn’t who we are, we need to work together to solve this problem. And that to me is what is hopeful in this movie, that we can find common ground to solve some really fundamental issues. And whatever the sins of the Obama administration were in failing to prosecute people who may have done bad things, they pale in comparison to the sins of the CIA for instigating this program and the sins of the Bush administration for allowing it to continue and expand. And so in the ranking of wrongdoing, Barack Obama is at the bottom of people who did bad things. It’s important that that hierarchy remain intact. He didn’t start this program. He didn’t okay it. He made a decision that rather than fully investigate in the manner of the 9/11 commission, that he wanted to move on.