Daniel J. Jones worked tirelessly in a nondescript Washington, D.C., room for the better part of a decade, trying to connect the dots between the CIA’s detention and torture of terrorist suspects at black sites and the Bush White House. The Senate staffer, whose work was passionately backed by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), not only had to contend with members of the Senate who would rather his torture report not see light of day, but also elements within the CIA that would fight to keep its own conduct under wraps.
“That was my life. I was working six, sometimes seven days a week [for] very long hours. And you don’t set out knowing it’s going to take seven years in total,” Jones said recently at a hotel in Georgetown, just a few miles from that government facility where he had secreted himself during the Bush and Obama administrations, during a recent interview. “You always think the end is just around the corner, but then there’s another delay and another delay.”
If Jones’s name was known at all, it was likely as a footnote to the public statements by a bipartisan coalition led by Feinstein and the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to bring America’s spy agency to accountability. But in the new film “The Report,” Jones’s fictionalized avatar (Adam Driver) plunges headlong into a quest for truth for moviegoers to behold.
“The Report” is written and directed by Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote the recent “The Laundromat”). Burns said he got in touch with Jones fairly early on after reading about his work in Vanity Fair and the Guardian.
“I read [the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report] and called Sen. Feinstein’s office, and I said, ‘Is there any way I can speak to Daniel Jones?’” Burns said, adding that in his initial conversations with Jones, there was a question about what material remained perhaps classified.
“Eventually I started asking questions about the actual process of putting this together: how he had 6.2 million puzzle pieces and he had to put them in the right order to really understand how this program evolved and where it came from,” said Burns.
Burns said he cast Driver as Jones’s avatar partly due to Driver’s own history as a Marine and thus his familiarity with “chain of command, protocol [and] he understood the kind of decorum that the Senate asks of a staffer.” Thus Driver and Jones were able to bond at the start and have conversations that helped the actor better get into the mindset of someone so focused on his goal that he has few, if any, friends and seemingly not much of a life outside of work.
“Adam works very much through the text and so he had questions both for me and for Dan about why things were worded in such a way,” Burns said. “When he and I first met, he said what I think is the best thing you can ever hear as a screenwriter, which is he thought this was a story that he knew, but as it turned out, he really didn’t. I told him that was exactly the kind of movie that I wanted to make.”
“Everybody knows who Feinstein is, particularly if you’re from California, but people don’t know who I am,” added Jones (Annette Bening portrays the long-serving senator in “The Report”). “And the important thing for Adam was to get that degree of obsession, and he nailed it. He had to portray seven years in a two-hour film.”
Because “The Report” covers Jones’s work over close to a decade, Driver was required to show the strain of his solitary research through acting alone. The Oscar-nominated performer shows the wear and tear with facial expressions alone versus cinematic tricks indicating time passing.
“You can see Adam’s face or the way he holds himself. And how he slouches down,” Jones said of his onscreen counterpart. “His face and his body language tells time. It’s pretty remarkable.”
“The difference between playing Dan and Annette playing Sen. Feinstein is Feinstein is a very famous public figure,” added Burns. “With Daniel, Adam had a little bit more space to look at this person’s actions and behaviors and extrapolate from them [Jones’s] character.”
As Jones’s story unfolds, the CIA, led by then-director John O. Brennan (Ted Levine) becomes concerned that too much sunlight might be less a disinfectant and more an embarrassment to the agency. A team of agents from “the company” is shown breaking into Jones’s office to steal servers and documents, which leads to a heated legal battle between Feinstein and Brennan—with Jones caught in the middle.
As the walls seemingly close in on Jones, Burns frames Driver in closeup, as if the camera, too, were breathing down his neck.
“It’s actually more alerting now to think back on what happened—thinking about the criminal referral the CIA sent to the Department of Justice that was fabricated against the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” Jones said. “It was a wild time, but I remember being really focused and not distracted. And I had the luxury of being surrounded by senators who really believed in what they were doing and wanted to protect me.”
Indeed, it was an era when bipartisanship still seemed possible. Feinstein’s allies in the Senate not only included McCain but also Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), and together they went to war with the CIA over its conduct.
“John Brennan is a complicated person. He’s somebody who spent his life at the agency and obviously had a great deal of loyalty” to the CIA, Burns said. “And so I think one of the challenges is we have to figure out a way to look at people who serve our country as not all good or all bad.”
Indeed, Brennan has since come out as one of the Trump administration’s most vocal critics—so much so that the administration threatened to revoke his security clearance. Burns says this shows the need for nuance and understanding the many different sides of the same person.
“I understand why John Brennan felt like he needed to defend the CIA” during the furor over the torture program, “and I understand why he feels right now he needs to defend the integrity of this country too,” said Burns. “Do I wish that he had been more forthcoming about what the CIA did, and does it blow my mind that he didn’t just say, ‘We made a mistake that we should not have done’? Yeah, that would have made me very happy.”
“And Sen. Feinstein said that: We made a mistake but we are big enough to admit it. And the civics lesson in that for me is really profound.”
When it came time for McCain’s big speech on the Senate floor decrying the CIA for a lack of accountability, Burns opted for archival footage of McCain—who himself endured years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Vietnam—rather than cast an actor to portray the senator, who died last summer.
“That speech was one of the first things I encountered when I was doing my research that I sort of put a star by that I need to end the movie here because of his history and because he was so nonpartisan and clear in his thinking on this,” Burns said of McCain. “And I wanted that moment to bolt the movie onto real life so that people understand the hard work that you’ve seen Daniel Jones do in the film…how somebody goes into a room to do their job thanklessly for six or seven years, and what we see is John McCain make an incredibly passionate speech.
“I think I used to get emotional about it because it just is so upsetting that we tortured people. But now I look at it and what’s upsetting to me I think is the disintegration of any sort of meaningful dialogue and cooperation” in the Senate today, Burns said.
Jones now works in the private sector running a nonprofit called Advanced Democracy, which he says focuses on “public interest investigations around the world.” He has also founded a company that performs research and investigative work.
Burns said that while he was in post-production on his project about Jones, Burns’s frequent collaborator, Steven Soderbergh—who served as a producer on the film—suggested Burns call the movie “The Report,” which was simple and direct.
“One day we were sitting in the editing room talking about what could the title be. And I saw his eyes go to the production hat Burns was wearing, with the words “The Report” on them. “He said, ‘Why don’t you just call it what you’ve been calling it?’
“I would say it’s under our nose, but it was actually right above our nose.”
“The Report” opens in select theaters Friday and expands on November 22nd