The Report and cinema’s changing attitude to on-screen torture

Scott Z Burns’ docudrama exposes some hard truths about the CIA’s anti-terrorism tactics.


Prahlad Srihari


There was a time when Jack Bauer embodied a nation’s collective rage as he drugged, electrocuted and waterboarded terror suspects for information. When he’d say things like, “You probably don’t think that I can force this towel down your throat – trust me, I can,” a ton of Americans probably got patriotic boners. Post 9/11, 24 became a chief weapon in America’s propaganda campaign to persuade the public that torture was an intel-producing necessity.

It wasn’t, as was revealed in a Senate Intelligence Committee report, which is also the subject of Scott Z Burns’ The Report. The film tells the story of Senate staffer Daniel J Jones (Adam Driver), who led a six-year-long investigation to uncover the truth behind CIA’s “enhanced interrogation tactics” (EIT) in the wake of 9/11. The film makes for a stunning moral indictment of America’s institutionalised cruelty during the administration of George W Bush. It’s a docudrama that sits somewhere between Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Thankfully, it’s closer to the former than the latter.

Taxi to the Dark Side traced the chain of command from the prisons in Afghanistan and Guantanamo to the offices of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney – through the story of Dilawar, an innocent Afghan cab driver who was tortured and killed in American custody. Like Gibney, Jones seeks accountability for those responsible for the crimes. The committee discovers the enhanced interrogation programme was masterminded by two psychologists, James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, but it was endorsed at the highest levels of government even when they knew they were violating the Geneva Convention.

They piece together how the Bush administration provided a legal framework for the programme by allowing it to be run in CIA black sites overseas. CIA even denies they are torturing prisoners by creating its own definition of torture (EIT) and kidnapping (extraordinary rendition) with less objectionable euphemisms. But the bombshell among them is they misrepresented the effectiveness of the programme when, in fact, there was enough evidence to suggest that treating terrorists humanely and empathising with them yielded better results.

Even Zero Dark Thirty erroneously implies that torture yielded key information in the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden. But the Senate report found that it was not “a central component” in finding the former Al Qaeda leader. So, the film’s depiction of torture as a successful interrogation tactic works nothing more than as propaganda to convince the general public that human rights abuses are acceptable in the “global war on terror” as long as America is the one doing it. Both Zero Dark Thirty and 24 helped justify the use of torture as CIA used pop culture as a pulpit from which to pontificate patriotism.

But patriotism can never become a defence for this level of barbarity. This is similar to the 2017 Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour, which whitewashes history to glorify the former Conservative Prime Minister without challenging the well-documented perception that he was an unapologetic racist, classist and imperialist. Instead, director Joe Wright gives us a Churchill-takes-the-London Underground scene.

The Report critically engages the audience on how America justified its use of torture in the straightforward manner of a documentary. Yet, at the same time, it dramatises one honest man’s story within the larger context of America’s war on terror in the form of a more palatable feature film. But this does not come at the cost of certain undeniable empirical facts and it does not treat them like they were flexible parameters. It simulates reality through a carefully researched recreation of documented events.

Burns’ docudrama approach is reminiscent of HBO’s Conspiracy, which dramatises the 1942 Wannsee Conference where Nazi officers gathered to discuss and implement the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”. It takes a similar didactic approach in its efforts to educate and entertain, with its documentary realism keeping it from collapsing into a mere morality tale. Thus, the film works as an effective companion piece to Taxi to the Dark Side, offering much the same lessons in a more palatable way. By contrast, Zero Dark Thirty manipulates audiences by altering narrative elements in its creative treatment of reality.

Docudramas are a depiction of reality, not an imitation of it. But the problem arises when filmmakers eschew facts for fiction solely for the sake of dramatic potential. There is a delicate balance to this duality – and, as The Report does so well, a balanced docudrama must take a scrupulously journalistic approach.

Published 27 Oct 2019

Tags: Adam Driver Alex Gibney Scott Z Burns

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