Horrifying ‘Torture Report’ brings evil to life

Man, I just love Adam Driver. He’s easily the best thing to come out of the Sequel Trilogy. Images courtesy Amazon Studios.

6/10 I wonder if this will finally get Ellen to dump George

The Torture Report chronicles Daniel J. Jones’ (Adam Driver) investigation into the U.S.’ torture of enemy combatants after the Sept. 11 attacks. A congressional aid for California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), Jones is assigned in 2009 to go through the CIA’s full documentation of the “enhanced interrogation” program that was employed at Abu Ghraib prison and the Guantanamo Bay detention center. The film cuts between Jones’ seven-year investigation and fight to get it published and the architecture of the torture program he was investigating, pioneered by psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Elmer Mitchell (T. Ryder Smith and Douglas Hodge). 

Fighting multiple political foes at different points, Jones eventually got a a 525-page summary of his 6,700-page report released. The report details a repulsive, woefully ineffective and pathologically stupid torture program. The film portrays interrogation techniques that are not only unproductive and morally wrong, but that replaced traditional interrogation methods that had been working just fine. U.S. operatives never gained a single piece of new, accurate information from the use of torture. 

Writer/director/producer Scott Z. Burns, an overtly partisan filmmaker who produced the 2006 Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, is beyond heavy-handed in his handling of the material, but he hammers everything so hard it eventually turns to the film’s advantage. The Torture Report isn’t about craft, it’s about cultivating outrage. The script may ring of that classic “subtext is for pussies” mentality, but when that subtext would be the glossing over of details of this horrifying program, it would have defeated the purpose of the film entirely. 

So, we get scenes like the one Jessen and Mitchell, portrayed as hicks straight out of Deliverance, say in as many words that speaking Arabic isn’t necessary to question Arabic-speaking prisoners and that experience performing interrogations doesn’t matter. The Torture Report sits back and lets the outrage do its work. 

It’s not even torture porn — the scenes of torture themselves are brutal but brief — it’s torture legality porn. Jessen and Mitchell take most of their pleasure in hearing the legal gymnastics that have to be performed to justify their actions. They spend so much time discussing this and the minutia of what they’re allowed to do to inmates that the information they’re supposed to be extracting seems like an afterthought. Many inmates appear to have not even been asked any questions. “Science” is a filthy word in The Torture Report, used by Jessen and Mitchell as a hand-wave explanation to legitimize whatever they feel like in the moment.

Flashback scenes in CIA offices and blacksites are all bathed in the same sickly yellow that skin and suits of all colors seems to blend the same into. Maybe it’s making a point about the overarching racism of the War on Terror? The point is, it gets difficult to tell all these people apart.

The Torture Report may not be about craft, but the craft does it few favors. This movie is part of a broader reaction to Spotlight’s surprise Best Picture win in 2016, and compared to one of the best movies ever made very specifically at making the gathering and ordering of information exciting, it can’t help but fall short. There are some spiffy transitions when the camera cuts into words as Jones types them and transitions into flashbacks, but on either side of those transitions it’s much more about laying the information out for the audience than it is about letting us discover it with the characters. 

On the other hand, it’s much stronger than the directionless half-satire of The Big Short or Vice, both of which also outline real outrages in extreme detail, but don’t have any tools to separate reality from exaggeration other than sneering third-wall gags. 

Where we do spend time with the lead character is in scenes as he watches the War on Terror go by without him. Over the course of several years, Jones is forced to watch several senators and officials claim U.S. operations were successful due to the use of torture, something he knows isn’t true and something he knows they know isn’t true. The firm defenses of torture, which we now know were outright lies for political posturing, are the most anger-inducing moments of the film. 

This is released on Amazon Prime, and they have this wonderful X-Ray feature that gives a constant stream of trivia. It’s an absolute boon for a movie based on a true story like this, where the facts are a huge deal. For The Torture Report, it’s full of lovely gems like “‘enhanced interrogation’ has no legal meaning” and “Jessen and Mitchell did not have any relevant subject matter, linguistic or cultural experience and had never conducted a real-life interrogation before.” 

I’m really glad they didn’t try to cast John McCain. The late senator, who was tortured in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp, was the main Republican pushing for this information to come to light and lent his name to the McCain-Feinstein Amendment that resulted from it. While Feinstein is portrayed by Bening, McCain is only seen and heard in archival footage.

The legality of the torture program was established on some deliberate and deeply disturbing misreadings of the law, which are all the more disturbing in a film released concurrent with current president Donald Trump’s impeachment. It is so fucking hopeless and terrifying to watch this movie about the CIA running around Guantanamo Bay like a chicken with its head cut off, torturing for fun, all of this coming out and absolutely nothing happening, and then getting up in the morning and listening to how likely it is that the current administration will face no consequences for its actions either. The synergy between the necessity of making this into a movie after the explicit theatrics to get the point of the Mueller report across drives this feeling even further home. 

No one’s coming for the Guantanamo Bay inmates. Because of what happened to them — and this includes alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who is still at Guantanamo Bay and has yet to stand trial — they can never be prosecuted, and they likely be in legal limbo for the rest of their lives. No one was coming for Jones in his tomb of a West Virginia office building, either. No one was coming for this report, and even now that it’s out, no one’s coming for the people responsible. 

“Without his indefatigable work on the Intelligence Committee staff, the Senate report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program would not have been completed, nor would its executive summary have been released to the public, an effort that led to the recent passage of critically important and long overdue anti-torture legislation … to say that Dan worked diligently on this study is a gross understatement. He, along with other committee staff, worked day and night, often 7 days a week, from 2009 through December 2012. He became an expert in one of the most unfortunate activities in the history of our intelligence community, going through more than 6 million pages of materials produced for the study, as well as immersing himself in the anti-torture provisions in U.S. law, as well as human rights materials, and the background of other similar historic Senate investigations. Throughout this period, Dan regularly briefed me on the team’s findings. Each time, I noted the obvious toll that this was taking on him physically, but he always remained committed to concluding the report. … From the end of 2012 through the end of 2014, Dan stewarded the report through two bipartisan committee votes, a lengthy period of review and meetings with the CIA, and an 8-month long redaction review leading to the release of the executive summary of the study on December 9, 2014. He then played a key role in enacting reforms following the release of the executive summary, in particular the passage of a provision in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act that will prevent the future use of coercive interrogation techniques or indefinite, secret detention in the future.” -Diane Feinstein on Jones’ work.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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