FEBRUARY 11, 2020
PERSONAL DATA IS the oil of the 21st century, a recent New York Times article claimed. Privacy, I’d thought, misremembering. But privacy and personal data travel together. Amazon knows. Over the drifty days of Thanksgiving weekend I announced my intention to go see the new film The Report, hoping friends might want to join me. “Is it playing yet?” I asked lazily, meaning at the little theater in our neighborhood, catty-corner from the neon-green burger place. “It’s on Amazon,” someone told me, “you can stream it.” I don’t have an Amazon Prime account (because I’ve worked in independent publishing for 15 years, I would righteously say). So I used someone else’s.
Streaming, everyone knows, makes the shared, collective experience of seeing a movie — even of turning to a particular station at a particular time — definitively more private. You choose from among thousands of choices you’ve paid to access; you watch, probably alone in a room. Your choice is recorded, algorithmically compiled, sold. This encounter-in-data is both very distant — your little evening is one among billions of data points; you can’t say where they all are, in whose hands — and incomprehensibly intimate.
You might say that torture is very distant (as a phenomenon) and incomprehensibly intimate (as an act).
Of course its distance depends on who you are.
The subject of The Report — in promotional material this appears as The Torture Report — is the United States’s brutal rendition and torture of detainees during the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT), or Global War Against Terrorism, phrases people don’t seem to use much anymore, seemingly because the interconnected forms of violence and surveillance they describe are no longer something worth describing, but have become status quo, an American way of life, a way of doing business, foreign and domestic. The torture program — enhanced interrogation techniques, as they were infamously branded — was first and foremost a CIA program, initiated by CIA attorneys. It began, as we know, under the Bush administration. The Obama administration ended these practices and policies and yet, as the film portrays, particularly via the figure of CIA Director John Brennan, didn’t welcome investigation and accountability. (The film includes the still-remarkable instance in which Brennan’s CIA hacked Senate computers to spy on the Senate’s investigation of the agency.) “We tortured some folks,” as Obama memorably put it in 2014, but those who committed the torture were, he then assured, “real patriots.” His administration declined to punish those who perpetrated these acts of unlawful detention, torture, and murder — their victims predominantly Arab and Muslim men, from around the world — a decision that has led directly to our current situation under the Trump administration. Gina Haspel, known supporter of torture and destroyer of evidence thereof, now heads the CIA; and our latest FBI director, Christopher Wray, has a troublingly vague relationship to these Bush-era programs.
Plus ça change, then? It’s rare for mainstream cinema to peek under this sort of hood, but this film does. The 6,700-plus-page eponymous report was produced over the course of six years under the leadership of Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones, an effort directed by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and its chair, Dianne Feinstein. The Senate released a 500-plus-page redacted summary of the report in 2014; the full report remains classified. Its composition is the movie’s plot. This is a movie about looking at torture.
Yet, above all, it’s a movie about America looking at America. Ultimately, The Report is about us, who we are. “It’s not about who they are. It’s about who we are,” Senator John McCain once said, opposing the US’s use of torture in the GWOT (McCain himself was tortured while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam). The Report concludes with a clip of McCain speaking in these terms from the Senate floor; the closing credits include a statement by George Washington, calling the torture of prisoners a source of shame to those who commit it. The film is framed as a reckoning with what we’ve done, how incidents like this betray our values, as the phrase often goes, though a phrase like that begs the real questions of American history.
Jones, portrayed by Adam Driver, is the film’s center and the viewer’s onscreen surrogate. This perspective is an act of generosity toward the viewer, toward the larger American public. After all, in the long history of American torture (fundamental to the institution of slavery, the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, and dubious practices that make up mass incarceration today), Jones’s work is exceptional. His is among the most admirable engagements with our country’s crimes one could hope for; he is one of the best versions of us.
Watching, we identify not with the torturers or their victims, but with the witnesses who feel the right thing, say and do the right thing. (The ethics of this use of perspective are described well in Jim Hicks’s Lessons from Sarajevo: A War Stories Primer.) We’re there with Jones and the other staffers, in the basement room — the SCIF — in which they investigate, day after day, year after year. These characters’ righteousness is lent to us, makes a community of us, elevated, inspired. When I watched The Report, I felt renewed clarity, renewed hope: that a mainstream film opposing the torture program had been made. In another’s hands, there on screen, the torch of your outrage burns suddenly bright. It illuminates. In recognizing evil as evil, viewers may know our potential for good.
The style of The Report feels somber and clear-eyed, highly realistic. It quietly incorporates documentary material — as Matthew Phelan notes in Slate, the dialogue includes vital scraps of the historical record. The film’s storytelling is straightforward, conventional in form, looking to create the feel of nonfiction without too much framing or metafictional fuss. It deliberately lacks the genre play and postmodern glimmer of other fictionalizations of recent history: Michael Winterbottom’s “docudrama” The Road to Guantánamo, with its movement between factual and fictional modes; Adam McKay’s Vice, with its delicious showiness, its exaggerated amorality that is devastatingly confirmed in fact; Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, with its ripped-from-the-headlines zest. In Bigelow’s case, the journalistic pretense of the film served to mask its most significant fictionalization: the film propagates the lie that the use of torture helped the United States get Bin Laden. (In one of the best moments in The Report, Jones sees a trailer for Zero Dark Thirty, an inchoate unease registering on his face.) If Zero Dark Thirty became propaganda for the torture program, and if Vice felt partisan enough that some said it was serenading the choir, The Report looks to play a role more like that of a Senate report in some perfect world, some more perfect union: a hard correction, an impeccably fact-based account. It’s a work of art that may serve as a proxy for history. In this case, the history is not unknown, but is in real danger of repeating itself; as the film documents, this history has over the years been suppressed, distorted, downplayed, redacted, is too unwieldy, too ugly, too imperial, too repetitive, for average readers, viewers, voters to face. So, a two-hour version: clear, charismatic, citable, and truly horrifying.
If a film works like a mirror, that mirror is given form by its actors, occurs in the movement of eyes, a voice’s cadence, a walk down a corridor. Adam Driver evokes Jones’s drive to investigate without overexplaining it; Driver is adept at representing, without breaching, a character’s privacy. The Report relies deeply on his performance and on its actors’ ability to create meaning out of characters who are lightly sketched, exist only in moments of encounter that are either the enactment of torture or the logistics of its distant bureaucratized investigation. For the most part, the film’s actors must build depth out of the constraints of textual fidelity (the demands of the historical record; the report itself) and cinematically familiar scenes (the confrontational speak-truth-to-power meetings; the congressional hearing; the prison cell and the torture of a Middle Eastern–looking man, as seen unrelentingly on eight seasons of 24, a show the film also name-checks).
And so the characters who are the worst known by this film are the same people we’ve failed all along: the men who were detained, tortured, and in at least 100 cases, according to Human Rights Watch, killed in US military or CIA custody. The film’s structure allows these men little chance to be more than objects of violence, inciting the viewer’s horror but not our identification, still shadowed onscreen by the name “terrorist” and the otherness that caught American imperial attention. We’re meant to be disturbed by their treatment, but we’re not positioned to imagine them as us, us as them, to put ourselves where they are forced to be. Any sense of nearness to them is due, again, to actorly choices — Zuhdi Boueri, in a brief appearance as Abu Zubaydah, draws the camera in, suggests the presence of a complex individual here, badly wounded, tossed among planes and prison cots and black sites, his personal hell just starting. It’s worth noting that in real life Zubaydah remains in US custody, in Guantánamo Bay, having been waterboarded 83 times. Torture has cost him an eye, his mental health is reportedly poor, he has yet to be charged with any crime, and he’s still never been al-Qaeda’s “number three” man, as the US publicized him for years. According to The New York Times, “subsequent intelligence analysis” in the wake of his interrogations “showed that […] he had no advance knowledge about the 9/11 attacks, nor was he a member of Al Qaeda.”
Perhaps because Amazon Studios wants The Report to have broad, bipartisan appeal, the film tends to present cases like Zubaydah’s in terms of their ineffectiveness, not their injustice. Torture is bad for us. It gets bad data. It doesn’t prevent attacks. It “breeds” more terrorism. It shames us. It lets sadists make bank ($81 million to the notorious psychologists who built the CIA program, James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen) while good police work (was it?) goes unnoticed. And if Americans torture prisoners of war, then American prisoners of war will be tortured. That many victims of American torture may be innocent is mentioned as a possibility but isn’t the emphasis — nor is the fact that their very detention often lacks basis in law. In so many American discussions and representations, the suffering of these men — the profound violations of privacy, freedom, and dignity to which they’ve been subject — is seen in terms of what it means for us, not them.
I wonder what they would think, what their families would think, upon watching the torture scenes in The Report, well intentioned as these are. In order to help America know itself better — know itself as better — their most intimate humiliations are reenacted, again and again. American viewers are watching not for their sake, not really, but to picture ourselves as someone like Daniel Jones, to share in his heroism. The film is built to reflect Americans back to ourselves in idealized form, to restore us to honor by how we bear witness to our own crimes. And so, yet again, on a set somewhere we build another fake waterboard, hoist someone onto it, so that everyone watching at home can get it right, feel the right thing this time. In these scenes, Americans are having a conversation with themselves. The men you can hear nearly drowning aren’t part of it.
Perhaps — I don’t know — these men would be grateful for this film’s message. Perhaps they would appreciate, as I did above, even a brief acknowledgment of Abu Zubaydah as a man who lives and suffers, who catches a camera’s eye. Perhaps not at all. The Times recently published a series of drawings in which Zubaydah depicts his own torture (others have appeared from ProPublica). The Times notes that “[Zubaydah] drew these sketches not as artwork, whose release from Guantánamo is now forbidden, but as legal material.” There are surely other things the United States’s many detainees have wished to say. Perhaps art on subjects other than their own torment — art we’ll never see if it can’t be called legal material, whatever that might mean in legal cases that have yet to be charged. Or something their repeated hunger strikes, ended by force-feeding, were trying to express. Or just some words as ordinary as most of us manage most days.
And if you want to draw nearer? If you want to follow the path this film suggests, try to comprehend this distant crime in which you have been — through the bonds that form and enforce a nation — implicated? You might seek out Jenny Holzer’s Redaction Paintings: get close enough to read, and you’ll see that these are autopsy reports. Black bars scatter over them, the trace of a censoring hand. These “redacted handprints” are paintings based on detainee “handprints that were made postmortem,” the artist says: “I turn these handprints into paintings, with apologies to the dead, and then move to make them as precise, as clear as possible.” You might read Eric Fair’s Consequence, his memoir of working as an interrogator for a private contractor in Iraq: he both witnesses and participates in acts of torture. In this book, as in The Report, you might note how often the most brutal and least competent of his colleagues seem to get promoted. The shame of committing torture is often an abstraction, a far shadow. Fair’s account makes that shame intimate — a force to which a whole life must answer.
You might read Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, edited by Larry Siems, published by Little, Brown in 2015, a rare exception to the silencing of those detained. Slahi wrote what were originally 122,000 words by hand over the course of a few months in 2005; the legal fight to publish his diary took years. (Imprisoned since 2001, Slahi was at last released in 2016; a restored, un-censored edition of the book appeared thereafter.) Slahi’s wit, his directness and quickness of thought, are so vivid that he seems to be speaking right to the reader; the experiences he records, the years of detention, interrogation, isolation, and torture are almost unbearable even to read of. Slahi — who committed no crime, had no involvement in or information about 9/11 — couldn’t participate in the making of his book; the redactions are intensive and often absurd. These were meant to protect the identity of his guards and interrogators, yet have the literary effect of making the Americans in the book into fairly interchangeable boxes. For once, then, the Americans are the characters lacking individuality and subjectivity. Slahi’s extraordinary writing holds the reader.
I didn’t read Guantánamo Diary when it first came out. I probably imagined the book less as a work of literature, more as a document. So it had to find me years later. I was in church with my father. We’d not gone to church, either together or separately, in almost 20 years, but he was dying. He had a brain tumor, a glioblastoma, the same illness from which John McCain was, at the same time, dying. This meant that my father identified with McCain, spoke generously of him, which annoyed me, since their choices in life had been so different. But my father was losing access to language, struggling to speak — his vocabulary shrinking, patched together with slang from various eras — and so I didn’t argue. I understood that I would never understand how the United States’s war in Vietnam had cleaved my father’s generation — he opposed the war, evaded the draft — and so I could not understand this last attempt to bridge that gap, to walk alongside a man who had been a political opponent into the death awaiting them. We went Sundays to the early service. The early morning congregation was very small: 10 or 12 people, most elderly. The Episcopal church had been central to my father’s family, his town and community, growing up, and I think that’s what he was looking for, some return to that force of belonging. It distressed him that this church didn’t seem to be thriving, such an empty room, so few people there. But the people who are there are there, I tried to argue. Every Sunday he would count the number of people and often he’d repeat that number later, frustrated, inarticulately. What is it like to watch as language vanishes from you? Of course in his case only mortality was at fault; no one inflicted this suffering deliberately on him.
We were there on Trinity Sunday, early summer. The priest was a woman of my own generation. She seemed to have spent time in an Occupy encampment, and when you knelt to receive communion you might see on her wrist a small bracelet reading Black Lives Matter. Trinity Sunday, she noted in her sermon, is a hard Sunday to write a sermon for, because the Trinity — that God is one, but three — is hard to understand, one of the Christian faith’s great mysteries. To my surprise, to illustrate this, she read a short passage from Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary. In it, Slahi (who has this sort of warm curiosity in most interactions) is asking one of his guards about the Trinity doctrine. “The more I look into it,” he says, “the more I get confused.” She (in the book almost all feminine pronouns are redacted, which nonsensically just confirms them) can’t really answer the question; together they don’t get much further. It remains a matter of faith. “But how can you believe in something you don’t understand?” Slahi asks, and she replies, “I understand but I cannot explain it.” I don’t know that we believe her exactly; perhaps understand means different things to different people. But there is a dialogue; Slahi is showing it to us. In church that day, I was struck: to help her American Christian congregation confront the mystery of the Trinity, this priest was lending us the words of a Muslim man labeled “terrorist,” a man detained and tortured by US forces, a man who is, in this scene, offering the grace of conversation even to those who unjustly imprison him. The priest was making him our representative, the voice in which we expressed our humility before everything we don’t know of God. What, I wondered, did the people in this room think?
English is Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s fourth language (learned “largely in US custody”) and as the editor Larry Siems notes, his “vocabulary […] [is] under seven thousand words — a lexicon about the size of the one that powers the Homeric epics.” Slahi relies on a few select words, building the world out of their repetition, bending them to his use as poetic tools. One such word is solace. The other detainees solace him, solace one another. His faith solaces him, his recitations of the Qur’an, through which he keeps time when denied daylight, denied sleep. Handcuffed, hooded, chained, newly arrived at Guantánamo Bay from a Jordanian prison, he writes, for example, “Although I was physically hurt, I was solaced when I felt the warmth of another human being in front of me suffering the same.”
On that distant Sunday, in that near-empty church, I felt, if I may borrow Slahi’s word, solaced by his sudden presence. I belong to Christianity in a cultural way; I don’t have anything I’d call faith. I don’t trust the feeling of hope I had when that priest spoke to and of us in Slahi’s voice. I don’t trust my desire to lessen the distance between him and us, whoever we are. How could we ask this of him? I couldn’t and can’t believe that this church, this room, was a place we all might draw near to one another, in a moment of dialogue, a confrontation with the mystery of separateness, to which we are each subject, until death. Can you believe if you can’t trust your desire to believe? I’ve not gotten any further than this. As far as I can tell, from reading his words, Slahi believes in the possibility of rooms like this, dialogue like this, the possibility of nearness and its solace. I’ve often wondered if you can have faith in the possibility of someone else’s faith. I think that if I could believe there’s a room like that, echoing with voices like his and yours, I might find that this room was closer than I knew.
Hilary Plum is the author of the novel Strawberry Fields, the work of nonfiction Watchfires, and the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets. She teaches at Cleveland State University and in the NEOMFA program and is associate director of the CSU Poetry Center.