Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Report

Did the CIA really hack into the Senate’s private files? Did Abu Zubaydah really prefer Pepsi? We break down the new Adam Driver movie.

Adam Driver and Daniel Jones.
Adam Driver as Daniel Jones in The Report, and the real Daniel Jones.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon Studios and Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images.

Late in the new movie The Report, Adam Driver’s Daniel Jones—the Senate investigator digging into the CIA’s torture program—rejects a suggestion that he leak his findings, saying, “If it’s going to come out, it’s going to come out the right way.” That same scrupulous spirit appears to have animated nearly every aspect of the film’s production. Ethan Tobman, the drama’s production designer, told Architectural Digest that he had an ambassador personally sketch the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, where Jones is shown reporting his findings. Tobman’s set design team also had the black-and-white marble in the Hart Senate Office Building’s hearing room digitized for duplication on the film’s Queens, New York, soundstage. Writer-director Scott Z. Burns also pulled some lines verbatim from C-SPAN videos, declassified reports, and contemporaneous news accounts—research that he conducted in consultation with the actual Daniel Jones.

But is the movie’s depiction of the government’s internal workings as accurate as its portrayal of its interior design? We break it all down below.

The Torturing

There’s no need to belabor this, but the film is accurate in its assertion that the agency detained 119 individuals, roughly one-fourth of whom did not even merit capture according to the CIA’s own internal standards. “Suspected Islamic extremist” Gul Rahman did, in fact, die of hypothermia at a CIA black site code-named Cobalt, and psychologist Bruce Jessen had been involved in the pitiless interrogation that lead to his death. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, really was waterboarded at least 183 times, and the Senate committee did conclude from internal CIA documents that these methods were “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.”

As part of their strategy for inducing sleep deprivation, disorientation, and other conditions conducive to “learned helplessness,” the interrogators really did subject some prisoners to ceaseless replays of Marilyn Manson songs, and while there is no public record of the agency using “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as deployed in the film, patriotic music including Neil Diamond’s “America” was a recurring theme in their agonizing “mental breakdown playlists,” alongside Bruce Springsteen’s perpetually misunderstood protest song “Born in the USA.” There aren’t any published accounts suggesting that Slayer’s “Angel of Death” was ever used, as it was in the film, although metal was used with enough regularity to make the idea plausible.

One more admirable detail about the CIA did manage to make its way into the film: The agency’s Office of Medical Services really did stick its neck out on numerous occasions to express criticism of the “enhanced interrogation” program. Tim Blake Nelson’s character, Raymond Nathan, although fictionalized, does accurately convey the role that the office’s physician’s assistants played in the torture program: These low-level staffers were employed more as pliant participants than actual physicians, though they would occasionally balk and report their objections.

The movie’s depiction of the origins of the program is also fairly accurate. Burns had initially secured the rights to a 2007 Vanity Fair article by Katherine Eban with the hopes of writing a black comedy about its subjects: the “enhanced interrogation” program’s shockingly incompetent masterminds, retired Air Force psychologists James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Mitchell and Jessen’s disturbing pitch to take the military’s torture endurance training program Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, or SERE, and flip it into a brutal interrogation protocol did in fact come with a lucrative $81 million payout. And the pair did travel the globe managing this program, officially dubbed Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation, or RDI, despite their laughable dearth of interrogation experience.

While the film accurately conveys the Senate report’s findings that the CIA believed it had not fully briefed then-President George W. Bush on the extent of the torture program until about four years in, April 8, 2006, any precise timeline of Bush’s knowledge has been muddled by contradictory statements made in Bush’s own memoir, Decision Points, as well as in the recollections of other agency and executive branch officials. Dick Cheney knew years earlier, of course. The vice president was informed during a July 29, 2003, CIA briefing along with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and others.

The Torturers

No less significant than faithfully recounting RDI’s grim details, The Report takes great pains to accurately convey all of the inane language used by the program’s architects to justify their human rights violations.

John Yoo, the Bush White House’s deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, is depicted delivering a terrifying little exegesis reviewing all of the inhumane activities that his parsing of torture’s legal definition would allow. Played by Pun Bandhu, he considers gouging out a detainee’s eyes, dousing them in acid, nearly anything, so long as it doesn’t betray intentional “malice or sadism” or lead to “death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions.” The speech is cribbed nearly word for word from Yoo’s own infamous 81-page “torture memo,” submitted to the Department of Defense in 2003.

In another jarring moment, the then-head of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez, justifies enacting Mitchell and Jessen’s pitch for inverting SERE with the proclamation that everyone involved needs to put on “their big boy pants”—a real phrase that the real Rodriguez would actually utter out loud to 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl a decade later in precisely the same context.

Maura Tierney and Gina Haspel.
Maura Tierney as Bernadette, and Gina Haspel.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon Studios and Win McNamee/Getty Images.

The most notable elision is that of Rodriguez’s long-serving real-world chief of staff, Gina Haspel, who is now Trump’s CIA director. In almost every worthwhile detail, Haspel, who is name-checked only once in the film, is replaced by a composite character named Bernadette (Maura Tierney), who, like Haspel, was present at the CIA black site in Thailand where al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah was nearly tortured to death. And according to Human Rights Watch, Haspel, along with Rodriguez, ordered the destruction of the CIA’s interrogation videos.

Were liberties taken in the portrayal of these officials? Yes, but where exactly is hard to say. Unless it came up in Scott Burns’ personal screenwriting inquiries, it does not appear to be true that either Mitchell or Jessen saved the rag used to waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or toyed with auctioning it off on eBay, as they do in the movie. Similarly, while the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center facilities were evacuated based on a terror threat in the aftermath of 9/11, it’s not clear if Rodriguez and Haspel were there to endure that panic. There’s also no reported evidence that Haspel put pressure on agents to justify the torture program with the statement that “it’s only legal if this works.”

The People Investigating the Torturing

Annette Bening and Dianne Feinstein.
Annette Bening as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and the real Dianne Feinstein.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon Studios and Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Compression is inevitable when dramatizing stories like this, and you can rest assured that the Senate’s actual 6,700-page report was written and compiled by more than three Senate staffers in a windowless room, after their three Republican counterparts stopped showing up to the satellite CIA facility in northern Virginia where the research was conducted. At least 19 other staffers are mentioned and thanked by name in Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s introduction to the report. Although Daniel Jones led the project and wrote “thousands of its pages,” per Feinstein, he was not the sole author of the entire document.

Nevertheless, a lot of the investigation’s key dramatic moments as seen in The Report are real and are more or less faithfully conveyed. The researchers were given a partitioned server, dubbed RDINet, expressly installed for the Senate team’s secure review of CIA documents, and that server was indeed hacked by the CIA after Jones shared details of the agency’s damning internal investigation into the torture program, known as the Panetta Review, with Colorado Sen. Mark Udall. And during the confirmation hearings for CIA attorney Caroline Krass, Udall did indeed, with Jones sitting behind him, out the existence of the Panetta Review in an attempt to keep the Senate’s torture report from being suppressed. Similarly, Jones did risk his career by storing a paper copy of the Panetta Review in a secure safe in the Senate offices out of concern over the CIA’s access to RDINet. Amid all of this, many of the qualms expressed by President Barack Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, including statements he makes in the film at a March 11, 2014, Council on Foreign Relations event, were taken word for word from his public statements.

Ted Levine and John Brennan.
Ted Levine as former CIA Director John Brennan, and the real John Brennan.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon Studios and Jay Godwin/Flickr.

Some of the plot’s smaller, character-building details are also grounded in reality. Jones really  did interview for a position with Obama’s future chief of staff Denis McDonough—and that initial meeting did reverberate in their sparring over the highly politicized fate of the Senate torture report during the 2014 midterm elections. However, although she has very likely uttered the words strong and pills many times in her life and in many contexts, Dianne Feinstein does not appear to have used the phrase “I hope you took your strong pills today” to such dramatic effect as Annette Bening does in the film.

Jon Hamm and Denis McDonough.
Jon Hamm as former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, and the real Denis McDonough.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon Studios and Alex Wong/Getty Images.

The Tortured

Let the record show that detainee Abu Zubaydah loved an ice-cold Pepsi. When you see FBI counterterrorism investigators fetch an infirm Zubaydah the choice of a new generation, know that this personal preference has been widely documented: Jessen testified to it in a Jan. 20, 2017, sworn and videotaped deposition conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice; it’s mentioned in at least five separate entries in an official U.S. government translation of Zubaydah’s diaries (“He knew, as everybody over here knows, how much I love ‘Pepsi Cola.’ And how much I used to indulge in drinking it”); it crops up all over.

No terrorists, suspected terrorists, or hapless foreigners caught in the dragnet seem to have been invented for the convenience of The Report’s narrative structure. Estimates from Human Rights Watch suggest that somewhere near 100 detainees died as a result of U.S. interrogation methods in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush years, including those related to the CIA’s program. Some things don’t need to be exaggerated.