Minnesota native Scott Z. Burns makes directorial debut with political thriller 'The Report'

A man at a desk in between large stacks of paper.
Adam Driver portrays U.S. Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones who worked for seven years to bring his report on the CIA use of torture to the public.
Atsushi Nishijima | Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The story of a U.S. Senate investigator slogging his way through millions of documents about the CIA's use of torture is the basis for a new tension-filled movie called "The Report." Written and directed by Minnesota native Scott Z. Burns, it's released in theaters on Friday.

The movie tells the real life story of Daniel J. Jones, a man with a deep interest in serving his country.

In the film, his character, played by Adam Driver, describes how, like many people, his life was changed by the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

"After 9/11, everyone was scared — scared it might happen again. It was my second day of grad school. The next day I changed all my classes to national security," he says.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

The film moves rapidly through the next few years until Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, gives Jones, now a Senate staffer, a huge job. He's to investigate the CIA's use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. What he found shocked them both.

"They waterboarded him 183 times," Jones tells Feinstein in the film. "Everything they got from him was either a lie, or something they already had."

"If it works, why did they need to do it 183 times?" Feinstein asks.

"Maybe when they report comes out, people will finally see that," says Jones.

People sitting at a deck with stacks of paper.
Annette Bening as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Adam Driver as Senate Investigator Daniel J. Jones react to the redaction of the report on CIA use of torture in "The Report."
Atsushi Nishijima | Courtesy of Amazon Studios

But that took years, and even when it was released the final report was heavily redacted.

However, the real Daniel J. Jones, sitting in the lobby of a Minneapolis hotel, said they needed to get the story out.

“It was too important," says Jones. "There is a line on the film, 'We are it. No one else is going to tell this story.'"

Jones does not quite have the glowering presence of Adam Driver who plays him in the movie. However, it's clear he's dedicated to good government. After working in relative solitude for close to seven years to compile the report and then get it released, Jones found himself explaining its contents to those who wanted to know more.

"And Scott was one of those people who called," said Jones. "And he kept calling and he kept calling. But he was like nerding out completely on the content."

A man stands beside a movie poster.
Former U.S. Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones poses with the poster for the film "The Report." He was in Minneapolis on Oct. 29 for a preview screening of the film.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Scott was Golden Valley native and 1985 University of Minnesota graduate Scott Z. Burns. He's now a Hollywood screenwriter and producer, with an ongoing working relationship with producer and director Steve Soderbergh. "The Report" is his directorial debut.

Burns said originally he envisioned making a dark — very dark — film comedy about the two psychologists who developed the enhanced interrogation techniques. However, as he dug deep into the story, he began focusing on Jones, the man who led the effort to scrutinize millions of documents and piece together what happened. The comedy became a drama.

"There is something heroic in this story that was attractive to me," he said. "I wanted to tell the story of some person inside the system who did their job and honored what the system was meant to do."

Burns and Jones were in Minneapolis for a preview screening — not just because of the hometown connection, but also because the Center for the Victims of Torture is based in the Twin Cities.

"The Report" not only details the obstacles Jones had to negotiate within the CIA, it also lays out political realities, which also got in his way. The investigation began during the Bush administration, and continued after Obama became president.

A man wearing glasses smiles
Twin Cities native Scott Z. Burns wrote and directed the political thriller, "The Report."
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Burns said the final release of the report should be seen as a huge victory for the system actually working.

He also said the films advocacy for checks and balances is relevant to the turmoil in Washington today.

"We do tend to understand history as these discrete moments, and they are not," he said. "They're knock-on effects of actions. And I think the seeds of this moment can be found over the last 20 years or so of American government."

For his part, Jones believes the film will help an important story get to a bigger audience.

“When we released this report in December 2014, it was front-page news all around the world," he said. "And the next day it wasn't. And it was gone."

Jones said he hopes through its narrative and storytelling the film will promote a wider understanding of what happened and help avoid similar mistakes in the future.