The 20th century had muckrakers -- journalists and authors who relentlessly probed people and institutions until the ugly truth surfaced, often with considerable consequences which could lead to political and social reforms. I'd like to submit that the 21st century breed should be dubbed "blood-boilers," those who doggedly pursue stories that the mainstream media can't or won't, chipping away at massive topics like the aftermath of 9/11, the war in Iraq or the far-reaching effects of the Bush administration without bias or ill will. First in line for this title? How about director Alex Gibney?
Gibney already tore open the world of financial corruption -- his exemplary 2005 doc Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room looks positively prescient these days -- and has peered into the life of one of America's most compelling writers (2008's Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson), demonstrating his range but also his ability to, for the most part, tread a fine line between sensationalism and sobering journalism.
Taxi to the Dark Side, for which Gibney won the 2007 Oscar for best documentary, is a searing, absorbing examination of the United States government's increased proclivity for torture in the pursuit of "evil-doers" in the war on terror. Using the case of an innocent Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar, who was beaten to death in 2002 by American soldiers, Gibney expands from there to take viewers back to the horrific events of 9/11 through to the present day, where the Bush administration, in concert with the armed forces and intelligence communities, continue to employ brutal tactics that bend the rule of law.
It's a sickening film -- Gibney shows several images from the infamous Abu Ghraib cache of photographs, along with Dilawar's autopsy photos -- and one that may have more liberal viewers quaking with anger at its conclusion. But much like Charles Ferguson's equally clear-eyed (and equally damning) No End in Sight, Taxi to the Dark Side doesn't push a political agenda -- Gibney (who narrates the film) has comments from several players in the Bush administration, as well as journalists, detainees and disgraced soldiers -- but rather, seeks to pull apart the issue of torture and why America, knowing the finite success of such tactics, continues to use it. It makes a fine appetizer for Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure, itself coming to DVD in October 2008.
Perhaps most infuriating? More than one interviewee suggests that the actions of the last five years will have considerable impact upon the future of America's relationship with the world. Regardless of who takes control of the government in 2009, the bloody, cocky approach to foreign relations, human rights and war-time conduct has potentially done far more damage than even the most enthusiastic hawks could have predicted.
Taxi to the Dark Side, despite its clear-eyed dissection of this troubling event -- the murder of a hapless, helpless Afghani taxi driver -- feels like a cautionary tale that's come just a bit too late, just after the worst has happened. As such, it's a stomach-turning glimpse of what might await our own soldiers and citizens in the years to come.
Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1, this anamorphic widescreen transfer is top-notch, handling the mixture of grainy archival video and crisp, newly filmed interviews with aplomb. The colors are vivid throughout (except in a handful of the archival clips), blacks are inky without becoming noisy and the level of detail is expectantly sharp.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is relegated to a supporting role here, owing to the fact that Taxi to the Dark Side is, y'know, a documentary reliant upon narration and talking head interviews. Gibney sparing uses score composed by Ivor Guest and Robert Logan, with a few well-placed sound effects also factoring in. Overall, it's a smooth, immersive experience that meshes well with the images. An optional Dolby 2.0 stereo track is included, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Gibney contributes a commentary track that's thoughtful and informative; it allows the director to fill in the gaps and delve a bit more deeply into various aspects of Taxi. A 15 minute, 40 second interview with Gibney's father Frank, who died not long after he sat for this segment, is included, in which he discusses his experiences as a Navy interrogator and his thoughts on the current government's actions (presented in anamorphic widescreen). Twenty-one minutes, 32 seconds of outtakes (presented in anamorphic widescreen) are playable separately or all together and include brief intros from Gibney. A pair of TV interviews -- a 17 minute, 56 second clip from "PBS Now" and a 13 minute, 46 second clip from Link TV -- both feature Gibney discussing the film (both presented in anamorphic widescreen) and the film's theatrical trailer (presented in anamorphic widescreen) completes the disc.
Taxi to the Dark Side, despite its clear-eyed dissection of this troubling event -- the murder of a hapless, helpless Afghani taxi driver -- feels like a cautionary tale that's come just a bit too late, just after the worst has happened. As such, it's a stomach-turning glimpse of what might await our own soldiers and citizens in the years to come. Highly recommended.