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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Mitchell and Jessen, with waterboards and PowerPoints, stand at center of new film

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

When word came out that a movie was being made about the post-9/11 interrogation program, with credited roles for the Spokane torture entrepreneurs James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, it seemed likely that the presence of the two former Fairchild Air Force psychologists would be relatively minor.

But in “The Report,” the new film based chiefly on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s damning 2014 report on the torture program, Mitchell and Jessen play practically starring roles.

They’re the villains, wearing coal-black hats.

In this dramatization – which is generally faithful to the facts in the report, with a few dramatized exceptions – Mitchell and Jessen represent the human manifestations of how badly things went wrong with the Bush-era “enhanced-interrogation program.”

In the film’s telling, they bear most of the blame, and while that’s not necessarily unfair – they developed, proposed and personally carried out the torture, and the government paid $80 million to their company headquartered in downtown Spokane – the movie only occasionally reflects the fact that they were operating under incredible pressure from the highest reaches of the CIA to do what they did.

Jessen said once, in a deposition, that he approached CIA officials and told them he wanted to stop using the “enhanced interrogation techniques” on one of the detainees.

“They kept telling me every day a nuclear bomb was going to be exploded in the United States, and that because I told them to stop I had lost my nerve, and it was going to be my fault if I didn’t continue,” Jessen said.

Of that same dynamic, Mitchell said in a deposition, “I think the word that was actually used is that ‘You guys are pussies,’ ” Mitchell said. “ ‘There’s going to be another attack in America and the blood of dead civilians is going to be on your hands. If you won’t follow through with this, then we’re going to send somebody out there who will.’ ”

“The Report” does not offer any scenes of a reluctant Mitchell or Jessen being browbeaten into carrying out more torture. It paints Mitchell as an overconfident cowboy and Jessen as a reserved true believer, and it paints both of them as ludicrously unprepared and inexpert, selling their snake oil to often skeptical agency officials.

In one telling moment, a CIA official asks the men why their repeated waterboarding of a detainee hasn’t resulted in any good intelligence.

Why, the official wondered, isn’t this working?

Mitchell replies that it is working. Thanks to the waterboard, he says, “we now know he’s lying.”

There is one scene where an official acknowledges how hard the CIA was pushing the program, “Mitchell and Jessen renamed (torture) enhanced interrogation to help sell it, but the agency was talking about doing it before they ever had a single detainee.”

If I had a quibble with the film, and it’s a small one, it’s that in the balance of blame, it places perhaps a smidgen more in the scales of Jessen and Mitchell, and a smidgen less in the scales of the CIA and Bush administration, than it should.

“The Report” is quite good if you like the kind of 1970s, lone-crusader-against-the-dark-forces-of-bureacracy kind of thriller. It’s chiefly the story of Daniel J. Jones, the aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was head of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

A 600-page public version of the report drew a series of damning conclusions: the torture didn’t work, it damaged the standing of the U.S. internationally, and the CIA lied and hid information about it. The full, unredacted 6,000-page report remains classified. For a tale built almost entirely on the production of that document, “The Report” is awfully gripping.

It’s also an excellent primer on what happened. It clearly lays out the turf battle between the FBI – whose experienced interrogators favored rapport-building approaches – and the CIA – whose inexperienced interrogators deployed torture methods that had been internationally banned for decades before the Bush team ginned up a short-lived legal OK.

It explains the “philosophy” Mitchell and Jessen brought to their plan to repurpose the survival school techniques taught at Fairchild, and other places, as interrogation techniques, and it hammers home how unscientific the notions were. It depicts the men using a PowerPoint presentation to describe their proposed techniques, a scene that apparently amalgamates several different presentations.

It depicts the men enthusiastically selling their plan on made-up “science.” It shows them torturing detainees brutally, in scenes that are appropriately disturbing, including a seemingly interminable waterboarding. It relates that they also used freelance techniques – such as “rectal rehydration” – that were beyond the scope of even the “approved” torture.

When their approach fails to produce any intelligence, they rationalize, with comic obtuseness, that it’s working anyway.

It depicts a CIA as ruthlessly willing to lie and destroy evidence, and it locates the morality of the events with perfect clarity: portraying the torture as barbaric and inept, and eviscerating the actions of two presidential administrations – Bush’s for the torture itself, Obama’s for its attempt to keep it secret.

And it has an old-fashioned hero at the center, in the character of the obsessed Jones, played by Adam Driver. Driver is great in the role, as is Annette Bening as Feinstein. The writer and director, Scott Z. Burns, manages to build a tense, engaging drama around events that are basically a paper chase.

It’s even better, though, as an explainer. It’s among the clearest, most gripping explanations of what happened when the country, aided by a couple of Spokane-area Air Force psychologists, lost its moral compass in the war on terror.

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