‘The Report’ Director on How Bush-Era Story Rings True in Trump-Era’s ‘Crisis of Accountability’

“That ends up causing us to live in a world where we’re not solving problems,” Scott Z. Burns says

The Report
Amazon Studios/Sundance Institute

In Scott Z. Burns’ film “The Report,” Congressional democrats have just lost the House majority to the republicans and are now faced with a dilemma: push for the release of The Torture Report to expose the truth of the CIA’s actions in the wake of 9/11, or risk losing leverage on other meaningful legislation.

It’s a debate that echoes how democrats in both the House and Senate felt over beginning an impeachment inquiry on President Trump. But as public impeachment hearings begin Wednesday, Burns explains why the message in “The Report” is all the more poignant.

“We’re living in a time where we have a crisis of accountability. Some of that crisis of accountability is resulting from a sort of political calculus,” Burns told TheWrap in an interview. “I view it as a very cynical approach to the government that if you take a stand, that it means it will come back at you in unexpected ways.”

He continued: “It sounds very reasonable. A lot of government is about compromise. But the democrats always seem to fall prey to this, being reasonable and, ‘okay we’ll compromise on this if we get some traction on another issue,’ but that isn’t happening on both sides of the aisle. That ends up causing us to live in a world where we’re not solving problems and we’re not holding people accountable.”

“The Report” is the true story of Daniel J. Jones and his seven-year-long effort to tell the truth about the CIA’s use of torture against suspected terrorists, exposing that the CIA knew the tactics were ineffective and failed to produce meaningful intel. But Burns’ film delves into the “Kafkaesque ordeal” of endless stonewalling, manipulation and political spin that threatened to bury Jones and make all of his efforts pointless.

Even so, Jones’ report virtually evaporated within the never-ending press cycle, and “The Report” closes with text saying that many of the individuals named within the Torture Report still hold jobs or were promoted within the CIA, including the current CIA director Gina Haspel. Haspel in particular was approved by the same senators and congressmen that fought to release the report in the first place.

“It was frustrating to him that the report that he did had such a short shelf life. He hopes that the movie can put out the narrative in his work into pop culture,” Burns said.

Burns is the screenwriter of four Steven Soderbergh films including “Contagion,” “Side Effects,” “The Informant!” and this year’s Panama Papers movie “The Laundromat,” but he’s making his directorial debut on “The Report.” The drama stars Adam Driver as Jones alongside Annette Bening as senator Dianne Feinstein, and the film contains the same icy tension, crisp cinematography and political intrigue of many of Soderbergh’s films.

“Because of the density of it and the amount of research, Steven was the first person to say, ‘you need to direct this, because you understand the story better than anyone else is going to,’” Burns said. “I probably spent 200 days of standing next to him. And though I don’t pretend for a moment that I can do what he can do, I did learn a lot from him of the discipline of coming up with a visual grammar for a movie.”

Burns originally started researching his film before Jones had even finished writing the Torture Report. He was focusing on the CIA psychologists featured prominently in the film, individuals who had no intelligence gathering experience but used twisted science to justify waterboarding and other abusive interrogation techniques.

But just as Jones had to work tirelessly to keep his report airtight, Burns’ story evolved dramatically through at least 20 drafts of the screenplay to ensure the complicated subject matter would be clear enough for a general audience.

“Every time I would write a draft, I would try and arrange a table read so I could hear this thing out loud. It was always going to be very dense by design, but I didn’t want that density to get in the way of people really understanding it,” Burns said. “So I had table read after table read after table read, and I honestly don’t even know how many drafts I went through.”

“The Report” opens in theaters Friday via Amazon Studios, but it already made its premiere at Sundance earlier this year and has already been seen by Jones, Feinstein and others on Capitol Hill. Burns said that Feinstein was “grateful” for the film, but he was most moved by the researchers, military servicemen and intelligence gatherers who are still doing important work in the face of difficult circumstances.

“All of those people know the enhanced interrogation program was a bad idea that hurt our country,” Burns said. “And in speaking to people in the military this week, they echoed the sentiments in the film that this program has left a stain around the world, and it’s going to take a long time, if ever, to correct that.”